We gave it a B-
Aghast at the fame thrust upon him by The Catcher in the Rye — and craving the solitude he needed in order to write — J.D. Salinger spent the last several decades of his life holed up in his rural New Hampshire hideaway, notoriously thwarting reporters and fans. (He died in 2010 at age 91.) For this oral history, Salinger, which will be simultaneously released as a documentary film, the authors spent nine years tracking down Salinger’s family, lovers, friends, fellow soldiers, and colleagues. Though neither the author’s wife Colleen nor his son, Matthew, seem to have cooperated, many others did, including people who had long declined to discuss Salinger with the media. And their recollections can be compelling: Jean Miller, who was befriended by Salinger when she was 14 and he was 30, details their creepy pseudosexual relationship; the author A.E. Hotchner, a friend until Salinger dropped him in the 1940s over a minor work snafu, brings postwar literary New York alive. The reminiscences are layered with a stunning array of primary material — military records, diaries, personal photos, letters, and legal documents, many never seen before. There’s an amazing picture of Salinger outdoors at a table, ever-present cigarette in his fingers, typewriter in front of him — the only known photo of him as a soldier writing The Catcher in the Rye. There’s his discharge report from the military; pictures of him with his first wife, Sylvia, a German woman who the book surmises may have been a Gestapo informant; a rejection letter from The New Yorker. Taken as a whole — the memories, the documents, the pictures — the book feels as close as we’ll ever get to being inside Salinger’s head.
But it also clocks in at almost 700 pages — pages that are not always in strict chronological order. The jacket copy claims Salinger is ”constructed like a thriller,” which is accurate only in that it’s definitely a bit of a puzzle, fashioned into sections bearing the names of the four stages of life as described by Vedanta Hinduism, the religion Salinger immersed himself in from the 1950s on. There’s no index, and the list of oral history participants — not all household names, mind you — is lodged in the back, maddeningly difficult to find. After the oral history ends, the authors weigh in with two concluding chapters, one that outlines their own thoughtful Salinger theories, and one that details blockbuster news about the five forthcoming Salinger books.
It’s the authors’ obsessiveness that led to these finds — and it’s that same obsessiveness that probably led them to cram every last one of them into the book. With better organization, Salinger would have worked pretty well; as it is, it’s a bit of a shambling, unwieldy mess. B-