This truly is not like any biography that has been written before. Dozens of voices coalesce to tell the narrative of Salinger’s life. Sometimes the voices contradict one another on this or that point, but it only adds to the richness of the story. I can’t imagine how much effort it took to comb through the letters, interviews, etc. in order to piece together this narrative.
It’s not only a story about the life of a reclusive writer; it’s a reflection of much that happened in America during Salinger’s life. The first third of the book focuses on World War II and the devastation inflicted upon the American (and German) army. Voices from the war portray its horrors as vividly as I’ve read in some of the best WWII novels. Regarding the infamous Battle of the Bulge, the authors quoted none other than Ernest Hemingway when he said of the German attack, “There’s been a complete breakthrough, kid. This thing could cost us the works. Their armor is pouring in. They’re taking no prisoners.” After the war, Salinger writes of the war in a letter, “What a tricky, dreary farce, and how many men are dead.”
From WWII, we see how Salinger completes and publishes The Catcher in the Rye, and subsequently begins to withdraw from public life. I enjoyed The Catcher in the Rye when I first read it in middle school, but loved it when I had to read it for English class in high school. I had a particularly good teacher, one whose words have stuck with me through and beyond college, and he turned the book inside out for me to really understand and think critically about. What I love about this biography is that at particular points in the narrative of Salinger’s life the authors insert quotes from Catcher that connect that story to what happened his life, so that the reader can see the direct influence of Salinger’s experiences on his writing.
From the various anecdotes in the book I got the impression that Salinger was an overall unpleasant man and I feel relieved to have never met him. He seems to have enjoyed lecturing others and blaming them for any misfortune that had ever befallen him. I do sympathize with him, as he suffered from severe PTSD and was shafted early on by the only woman he ever really loved (while he was at war, no less). Still, I can’t help but see him as terrible grouch, neglectful of his friends and family and self-absorbed beyond understanding.
Great props to David Shields and Shane Salerno, and even greater thanks to those who contributed to this astoundingly rich biography.