A new book and documentary on Salinger reveal very little about the writer’s inner world.
Salinger, the companion book that accompanies the new documentary on the writer, is just as silly and awful as the movie. Together, they make for the clearest demonstration so far of why J.D. Salinger was right to flee his public — to protect himself from such disrespectful, distasteful prying. The rather disingenuous jacket copy on the cover declares: “the Official Book of the Acclaimed Documentary”. How did its authors, David Shields and Shane Salerno and their publisher, Simon and Schuster, arrive at “acclaimed”? This feels not only like wishful thinking but also praise that is dishonest and unearned since both released simultaneously, with the movie at once being roundly thrashed and dismissed by several critics.
The book begins on a note that says previous biographies of J.D. Salinger have either been reverential or resentful, recycling information from the same shallow pool. This is certainly not true of Kenneth Slawenski’s superb 2011 biography which was objective, rigorous and broke fresh ground. Rather, it is this new “biography” — if one should even call it that — which feels lazy and shallow and resentful. There’s plenty that’s been dug out here from Salinger’s past, but nothing that reveals his inner world.
The book version is partly an amplified screenplay of the film, partly an oral biography built out of several interviews. There are chapters titled “Conversations with Salinger #1, 2, 3” etc — and picking up the book you become excited only to find out it’s all really quite sneaky: these are interviews with a handful of people who had encounters with Salinger, chiefly disgruntled friends, associates, fans and stalkers.
One significant subject in the biography whom we’ve never heard from before (and this is one of a handful of coups in this new work) is Jean Miller, who claims she was the inspiration for the character of Esme in the famous story.
A definite bonus in the book is the never-before-seen black and white photographs of Salinger as a young man. Two are quite marvellous: S playing with his favourite dog, Benny, and another of a dashing, moustachioed (slightly) smiling Salinger at a table in a garden, working on a book.
And there is of course the big revelation at the end, which is not news anymore since it was leaked (was this also a publicity stunt, you have to wonder) before the movie and the book came out: that there is new work from Salinger awaiting publication. Though the sources for this remain unnamed one can well believe it — anyone who has followed Salinger’s life and work closely will know that writing — especially about the Glass family — was religion for him. He just stopped publishing.
It’s wonderful news then that there are more Seymour-Buddy Glass chronicles, also two non-Glass novellas and – this the most exciting – a Vedanta manual illustrated with Glass-like fables. At last a religious text from Salinger!
The main failing of this new biography — the film and the book — is that for a work that is about a writer there is very little about his writing! The second large failing — and this is true of even previous biographies — is that there is no serious exploration of something very fundamental in Salinger life: his devotion to Vedanta. Over the years Salinger changed his mind about many things, and lost interest in many things, but surprisingly he held fast to The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna for well over 45 years. References to Salinger’s Vedanta connection in earlier biographies are glancing (again, the excellent Slawenski’s delved more into this than others) while there is one small academic treatise on the subject: Som P. Ranchan’s An adventure in Vedanta: J.D. Salinger’s The Glass Family.
What is needed is a book-length work on what all this meant to Salinger and his writing — I’d love to see a book on S’s years with his spiritual teacher Swami Nikhilananda at the Vivekananda Cottage in Thousand Island Park. (Perhaps the alleged Vedanta manual sitting in S’s bunker awaiting publication may hold some answers?) What is especially galling about the Salerno-Shield’s biography is how casually and superficially it makes use of the four stages as section headings (Part 1: Brahmacharya/Apprenticeship; Part 2: Garhasthya/Household Duties; Part 3 Vanaprasthya/Withdrawal from Society; Sannyasa/Renunciation) without any deep understanding of it. Neither does it explore the connection the headings suggest in any critical or meaningful way. It’s just there as heavy dressing. Holden Caulfield had a word for it: phony.