That his very flesh and blood would breach the privacy of one of America’s most famous reclusive celebrities to write about Life With Father may be newsworthy. But there’s no pleasure to be had from the taboo Margaret Salinger breaks in Dream Catcher: A Memoir.
And that’s not just because Joyce Maynard — another woman wounded by J.D. Salinger — got there first. Two years ago, Maynard published At Home in the World, in which the uncorkably confessional journalist wrote for the first time about the brief, denting affair she conducted with Salinger back in the early 1970s when she was an 18-year-old Yale naïf and the celebrated writer, hero to generations of troubled, truth-seeking teens, was a 53-year-old New Hampshire hermit. Maynard’s revelations were as creepy and gossipy as she intended them to be, spiced with details about his bulimia and her vaginal pain, and the book was baldly self-serving. But at the very least, hers was a book, shaped by a practiced writer in control of the effects she created.
What Peggy Salinger has produced, in contrast, is no book, no memoir as we know the durably popular form. Rather, it’s a wail, a shriek, a pool of blood collected from the life-threatening, still-fresh wounds of a mangled creature. Dream Catcher is terrible, and I mean that in multiple senses of the word.
The author, unskilled at her chosen project and unsure about her own voice, skitters and thuds from topic to topic. One moment she sounds like a dogged graduate student (she studied history and law and attended Harvard Divinity School), earnestly positing a theory about her father’s ambivalence toward Jews and Jewishness and conducting a textual analysis of JDS’s most famous work, The Catcher in the Rye. The next she’s fluttering like a 19th-century lady diarist: ”Oh, what a breath of fresh air a good library is! I know, musty is the usual adjective that is attached to libraries, but not for me.”
In one chapter she preens showily about her childhood familiarity with her father’s editor ”Bill” — called Mr. Shawn by most quaking adults — and pronounces: ”How do I say this? Ah! He was a born editor, a writer’s dream catcher.” In another, she dumps a pile of her letters from junior high, daring a reader to be any less interested in her adolescent giggles than in the fictional letter little Seymour Glass writes home in the born writer’s last published fiction, ”Hapworth 16, 1924” (The New Yorker, June 19, 1965). Unaware of her own sharply shifting literary tone, not up to the task of shaping the story of her own life, she flails ahead propelled by nothing so much as the flames of agony singeing her heels.
And that’s what is most terrible of all about Dream Catcher: The damage the daughter feels has been done her by her father (and, as an accomplice, her mother) is of far greater concern, if not tragedy, than whether readers learn every last detail about Jerome David Salinger’s inconsistencies, eccentricities, and considerable shortcomings as a human being. The author’s enumeration of her miseries — bulimia, molestation by a babysitter, diagnosis as a ”borderline,” crack-up, abortion, hallucinations, suicide attempt, and chronic fatigue syndrome — is matched only by her many mentions of her desire to be healed as best she can be, considering she grew up in a home where ”most of my father’s health regimens, such as drinking urine or sitting in an orgone box, he practiced alone.”
Therapy has helped her — her lumpy prose is draped over wooden tent poles of psychoanalytic insight — and so, she says, have her husband and son. If Dream Catcher helps her too, by disrupting the family cycle of ”creating beautiful things and hiding them or destroying them with the same hand,” then maybe this awful display is worthwhile. The robes of sainthood have fallen from J.D. Salinger’s lanky, 81-year-old frame; no matter how adamantly reclusive he remains in Cornish, N.H. (accompanied by his third wife, a nurse some 50 years his junior), the word is out that the author of Franny and Zooey is just another one of those ”goddam” geniuses unfit for marriage and parenthood. Let’s hope that by taking off her own wraps and parading her scars, Margaret Salinger at least feels fit for regular, nongenius life. D