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Saturday, October 26, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: David Shields & Shane Salerno SALINGER. Simon & Schuster, Sydney, 2013 (700 pages)

 This is the 'official book' of the recent documentary film Salinger which had a limited release in Australia in June 2013.

After reading the dozens of scathing testimonials on Amazon about this latest biography on Salinger, I was curious to read the book:

The main criticism by readers is that Salinger is not a traditional biography, it is more of a collection of short, fragmented quotes over hundreds of pages- many from books previously published by friends and critics.

I found the form of the book annoying at first. I'd read a typical 100 word passage from say Alex Kershaw and then flip to the Biographical Notes at the back of the book to see who Kershaw was and then flip to the extensive Bibliography to work out if he was listed there and then flip back to where I was up to in the book.

After a couple hundred pages I got to admire this post-modern style. The voices largely speak for themselves unadulterated by the author's opinions, and read compositely, they provide a wide and interesting range of conflicting perspectives on key events in Salinger's life. You have to remember that the book supplements the film and therefore mirrors its style. Ken Burns effectively used this amalgam of voices style in his brilliant series on the American Civil War about twenty years ago.

Another criticism is that Salinger is not so much a biography but a character assassination. The book certainly wouldn't have been published during Salinger's lifetime considering how trigger happy he was in threatening to sue people.

Unfortunately, one of the main focuses of the book is on fleshing out Salinger's relationships with the many young women he pursued throughout his lifetime- Oona O'Neil, Jean Miller, Claire Douglas, Joyce Maynard, Catherine Oxenberg and Coleen O'Neill & others. The book sometimes takes on a trashy, soap opera feel to it. Do we really want to know that the writer had a undescended testicle that he was embarrassed about or that he was repeatedly unable to penetrate the hymen of one of his young lovers?

Others hate the book because of its self congratulatory tone. There are a half a dozen times during the book when Shields & Salerno chest-beat that they have uncovered some stuff about Salinger which is to be revealed 'for the first time'. Usually these exclusive interviews derive from ex-lovers who are now prepared to come out of the closet and reveal all now Salinger is dead.

Another well founded criticism is that there is little discussion of Salinger's literary style. The book is not intended as a literary biography although readers have to eventually work this out for themselves.

In their 'Introduction' Shields & Salerno clearly state they began with three goals: "We wanted to know why Salinger stopped publishing; why he disappeared; and what he had been writing the last forty-five years of his life.

The book, however, disappointingly focusses on Salinger's quirky behaviour and on his relationships with younf women. There is even a sensational chapter 'Assassins' which examines Salinger's impact on three socio-paths- Mark David Chapman, John Hinckley and Robert Barbo- who carried around as their bible Catcher in the Rye and somehow used it to justify their use of hand guns on celebrities.

A couple of years ago I reviewed Kenneth Slawenski's biography- J.D. SALINGER- A Life Raised High (2010):  It is interesting that although Shields & Salerno don't acknowledge Slawenski's biography in their detailed bibliography, they are quick to lay the boots into him for the "dozens of errors about Salinger's war record" (page 26). Slawenski has also surprisingly publicly kept his silence about the film and book on his blog- a kind of hymn devoted to Salinger: Dead Caulfields:

I wouldn't recommend you rush out to buy this book. I loved the photos and the overall impressionistic feel to Salinger. I certainly came away a lot clearer as to why he never published after 1965 and about what he may have written in the bunker. You are probably better served downloading the film and borrowing the book from your local library.