At Home in the World

Writers are not, as a species, easy people. Their skin is latex thin, they’re competitive SOBs, and they drink too much. While their words may shimmer with kindness and contentment on the page, they themselves are apt to be spiteful and petty on the phone. And even those famed for being the nicest guys in the world carry with them a dangerous power: They can always, if they choose to, spill secrets, betray confidences, and expose private lives to public glare, wielding words to seduce, to punish, to flatter, and — most of all — to control.

Joyce Maynard — who does all of the above, heavy-handedly, in At Home in the World — had the makings of a writer early on. Staking out a place at the table with an alcoholic father, an overbearing mother, and a sturdy older sister whose early magazine successes chapped young Joyce’s ass, she applied herself assiduously to the task of getting famous. By 15, in 1969, she had published in Seventeen. By 18, a freshman at Yale (weighing in at an anorexic 88 pounds), she had sold editors at The New York Times Magazine on the notion that she was uniquely qualified to write about ”what young people are thinking about on college campuses these days.” Her cover story, ”An Eighteen-Year-Old Looks Back on Life,” ran on April 23, 1972.

And then her life changed dramatically. Among those who responded to the essay was the famously reclusive J.D. Salinger, then 53 and divorced with two children not much younger than the Times magazine starlet — the Voice of Her Generation! — who saw in the girlish-looking waif a kindred spirit. Maynard had to take his word for it; a TV addict, she had never read The Catcher in the Rye, Franny & Zooey, Nine Stories, or much of anything else between book covers. But long story short, she dropped out of college and lived with Salinger (Jerry to his friends) in New Hampshire for nearly a year. Then the relationship ended.

It is, naturally, the creepy details of Joyce’s time with Jerry that sell this book: He subsisted on a diet dominated by peas, ground-lamb burgers, and homeopathic medicines; he made himself throw up forbidden food like pizza and encouraged her to do the same; and — like we need to know — they never succeeded with sexual intercourse because her vagina clamped shut.

But At Home in the World nisn’t just about the queer nine-month affair between an eccentric hermit and a fame-struck, seriously neurotic virgin so shamefully bewildered by her own body that she hid used sanitary napkins in a closet for a year, afraid to tell her mother she had begun menstruating. Maynard’s favorite subject matter has always been her own life, and many of the details here have been meted out in newspaper and magazine pieces over the years — her marriage, her abortion, her three children, her house in New Hampshire, the death of her mother, her divorce, her breast implants, her romances, the sale of her house in New Hampshire, and her move to Northern California. I have learned to give Maynard’s chirpy, Norman Rockwellized accounts (even domestic disintegration comes out pretty) the kind of raised eyebrow with which I greet Kathie Lee Gifford, Martha Stewart, and most first-person stories in women’s mags. Defiant, taunting, score settling, and exhibitionistic as this memoir is, at least it isn’t as exasperatingly self-satisfied as most of Maynard’s other personal journalism; in its twisted way, and with a long, long way to go in the self-awareness department for the memoirist, it may be the most honest autobiographical work she’s done. (Her fiction is another matter; Maynard is also author of To Die For, a fine slice of bitter lemon turned into Gus Van Sant’s tangy 1995 movie starring Nicole Kidman.)

But it is the account of her bizarre relationship with the now-79-year-old Salinger, of course, that has caught the attention of memoir connoisseurs for whom, these days, even confession of a sexual romance with one’s own father is no biggie. By what right, sputter the outraged, could she dare to breach the privacy of someone who has taken such pains to lie low? And out of what naked self-interest would she play this trump card now, two decades after the drama? (Need for money? Flagging career?) The answer, in the end, may be in plain sight: Joyce Maynard is a writer. Writers aren’t nice. They print things they shouldn’t, just because they can. Surely J.D. Salinger must have known that when he took up with her. Maynard may have been young, but she was taking notes. This is the nasty report she didn’t write all those years when she was being — to paraphrase Holden Caulfield — the Goddamned Voice of her Generation. C-

At Home in the World
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