Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno

salingerDid I love this book or what? Yes, it had to do with the fact that I am intrigued by J.D. Salinger, America’s most elusive author. And yes, it might be because Franny and Zooey is one of my all time favorite books (though I don’t think I’ve read it for a good twenty years). But really, Salinger is simply a masterpiece. So well researched, so well told.

To start with, the way in which Salinger was told was new to me. Instead of writing a connected narrative based on their research, authors David Shields and Shane Salerno chose to retell Salinger’s story in the words of their interviewees. So what they have done is strung together bits and pieces from their interviews and arranged them somewhat chronologically or topically. This method tends to give a fuller picture of a reclusive and misunderstood man. Contradictory statements about Salinger stand side by side showing exactly how little is actually known about Salinger and how complex he was.

Shields’ and Salerno’s research also goes a great distance at showing how Salinger’s life, and specifically his experiences during the war, inform his work. It is clear that he likely suffered undiagnosed PTSD and this impacted him for the rest of his life. Viewed through this perspective, light is also shed on Salinger’s interest in the Glass family and why he may have adopted them as his own family. Insight into his life also reveals why Buddhism and Vedanta may have influenced his writing so greatly.

There are juicy bits to the biography as well, including his penchant for younger women and cruelty to his family. However, this is all treated sensitively rather than salaciously. Not that the authors are making excuses for Salinger, more that they are explaining his behavior from various points of view.

I found that the book got a little off track when looking into the influence Catcher In the Rye had on a number of young, violent men, including Mark David Chapman and John Hinckley Jr. Interesting though that section was, it tread a little too far from what we know or are trying to figure out about Salinger.

Who would like this book? Clearly this book is for the Salinger fan. Though knowledge of Salinger’s major works is not necessary to the reading, it certainly helps. And more importantly, Salinger sheds important light on his shorts stories and the Glass family. For someone interested in a more casual look at Salinger may be interested in Shields and Salerno’s documentary that was release simultaneously with the book. The book is a thick tome, and the documentary presumably goes into less detail.