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Book Review: ‘Salinger’ by David Shields and Shane Salerno

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salinger_shieldsThe first extended interview in Shane Salerno and David Shields’ biography Salingeris with a man named Michael Clarkson. In the contributor’s notes, Clarkson is described as “an author who specializes in topics of fear and stress.” As his interview with Salerno begins, Clarkson talks about spending two days mustering up the courage to write a note to the Catcher in the Rye author, begging for a meeting. “Salinger was the catcher in the rye,” Clarkson explains, and by virtue of his fiction seemed to know what Clarkson, then a police reporter, was thinking.

Does the biography of any other major literary figure give this kind of air time to an interview with someone who stalked its subject? To such trite, fawning fandom? Such is the nature of J. D. Salinger’s legend, and the reality is that interviewees like Michael Clarkson, and biographies like Salinger, are the very reason Salinger treasured his privacy and refused to cooperate with biographers. Nine years in the making, the first biography out of the gates after Salinger’s death in 2010 is badly edited, poorly conceived, and at times embarrassingly written. The promise of any information about a beloved and reclusive author is a guaranteed moneymaking proposition, but the sloppy mediocrity of the final product makes one wonder who green-lighted this project anyway?

The book begins at painstaking length with a chapter about the author’s life during wartime. Salinger was on Utah Beach at D-Day, and if the harrowing experience affected his life trajectory and his writing, an efficient biographer should have been able to distill this experience in one well-written chapter. Or one written chapter. Salinger is laid out in the format of oral history, not unlike George Plimpton’s far more successful Edie: American Girl. The sources for Plimpton’s skillfully edited script were his own interviews. The authors of Salinger conducted over 200 interviews for the book, but this material is sprinkled generously with excerpts from previously published sources, from newspaper articles to historian Stephen E. Ambrose’s doorstopper D-Day and other histories of the war. All these sources are given equal weight in the book, and only readers who turn to the back of the book for the detailed notes will know whether the material they are reading is new or cut-and-pasted.

The conceit, as misguided as it is, is not even maintained throughout the book. A central chapter on The Catcher of the Rye does not specify its different voices in the play script format that makes up most of the book, even though different sources are quoted in the chapter. Worst is a chapter on Nine Stories that comes off as a kind of fan fiction exegesis, wincingly distilling the Glass family characters in a chapter that any sound editor should have mercifully eviscerated into word processing oblivion.

I could go on about the authors’ insistence on not just once, but twice spelling out its thesis for Salinger’s life (religion, war, young girls) in a manner that sentient readers of the book can easily figure out for themselves; about repetitive choices in photos; about photos taken from clearly substandard digital sources; about the sidebars “Conversation with Salinger,” made up of a series of journalistic stalkers, previously published material, and in one case, the story of someone who almost met Salinger, but didn’t. Whatever you think of J.D. Salinger’s writing, his worst literary sin may be that he inspired such a terrible book.

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About Pat Padua

Pat Padua is a writer, photographer, native Washingtonian, and Oxford comma defender. The Washington Post called him "a talented, if quirky, photographer." Pat has also contributed to the All Music Guide, Cinescene, and DCist, where he is currently senior film critic.