In the J. D. Salinger story “Zooey,” the title character’s mother says of him and his brother: “Neither you nor Buddy know how to talk to people you don’t like,” adding: “You can’t live in the world with such strong likes and dislikes.”
This was true, too, of the famously reclusive Salinger, who retreated to Cornish, N.H., the small town where he lived in seclusion for more than a half-century. His alienation from the world and his mania for privacy became part of the Salinger myth — a myth that David Shields and Shane Salerno attempt to pierce in their revealing but often slapdash new book, “Salinger.”
Salinger stopped publishing decades ago (his last story to appear in print, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” came out in the June 19, 1965, issue of The New Yorker), but, by some reports, he continued to write nearly every day.
In “Salinger,” Mr. Salerno and Mr. Shields assert that Salinger, who died in January 2010 at 91, left instructions “authorizing a specific timetable” (starting between 2015 and 2020) for the release of unpublished work, including five new Glass family stories; a novel based on his relationship with his first wife, Sylvia Welter, a German he married shortly after World War II; a novella in the form of a counterintelligence officer’s diary entries during the war; a story-filled “manual” about the Vedanta religious philosophy; and new or retooled stories fleshing out the story of Holden Caulfield, known to generations of readers from “The Catcher in the Rye,” the novel that made its creator famous in 1951 as the voice of adolescent angst. The authors of “Salinger” attribute details of these plans to two anonymous sources described as “independent and separate.”
The sharp-edged portrait of Salinger that Mr. Shields and Mr. Salerno draw in this book is that of a writer whose “life was a slow-motion suicide mission” — a man who never recovered from the horrors of wartime combat and the soul-shaking sight of a Nazi death camp filled with burned and smoldering corpses. Salinger, they argue, tried to grapple with his post-traumatic stress disorder first with art and later with religion: “The war broke him as a man and made him a great artist; religion offered him postwar spiritual solace and killed his art.”
This reductive diagnosis of Salinger’s “condition” is accompanied by pages and pages of testimony about how his youthful arrogance (one friend said he dismissed “Dreiser through Hemingway” as “all inferior” writers) and disaffection with his parents’ bourgeois world calcified, after the war, into a deep antipathy, even repugnance for most worldly things and ideas. Eventually, that contempt infected many of his closest relationships, and as depicted in these pages, an observant, Holden-like young man evolves over the years into a blinkered and condescending curmudgeon who is frequently guilty of the same sort of phoniness or hypocrisy his characters so deplored.
Salinger’s family, the authors say, had to compete for his attention with the fictional characters he’d created. One scholar quoted here says that when Salinger went off to his writing bunker, he gave “strict orders that he was not to be disturbed for anything unless the house was burning down.” What’s more, as he retreated from the world, his writing grew increasingly solipsistic and hermetic, his mastery of the vernacular giving way to more and more abstract language.