Michael H. Miller
The title of Kenneth Slawenski's biography, the first major work on the author since his death one year ago, is J.D. Salinger: A Life, but there is no easy way to approach the subject. The most famously reclusive of all American writers, Salinger's "life" is hardly as available to us as the myth, the one we've all been familiar with since adolescence: He lived in the woods; he drank bottles of his own urine; he was really Thomas Pynchon. The biographer has his work cut out for him.
For the attempt alone, Slawenski, who has run a popular Salinger fansite since 2004 and has been at work on this biography (his first book) for eight years, establishes himself as a brave, confident writer. In a commendable act of literary journalism, he unearths all of Salinger's early, largely unavailable magazine stories and presents them to the reader in great detail. He gives us scenes of Salinger in the so-called bunker, the detached room of his Cornish, N.H., home where he went every day to write. Slawenski tells us of the resulting neglect of Salinger's family, friends and even his own life.
Therein lies the major problem of any serious biography of the author: the hours spent cooped up alone, further complicating the story of a man who was secretive to begin with. In the absence of concrete information, Slawenski retreats into half-hearted attempts at elucidating the author's writing. In a particularly tepid reading of one of Salinger's early short stories, "Both Parties Concerned," Slawenski writes that the work's two protagonists "were created as simple characters, but their simplicity adds to their believability ... all the more poignant for being so easily related to by the reader."
Putting aside the unfortunate passivity of Slawenski's voice, the sentiment falls into what David Foster Wallace once called "the unhappy paradox of literary biographies," otherwise known as the intentional fallacy. The readers of a writer's life will often be admirers of his work (a group that Slawenski, who reveals himself to be an unequivocal defender of Salinger in this book, is unquestionably a part of). They will wish for the life to validate that work only to find that fiction and real life are quite distinct. Salinger further complicates this dynamic because of his compulsively reticent lifestyle. Still, that Salinger was a realist is no revelation, and arguing that a work of fiction is "believable" is as meaningless as describing a boxing match as violent.
What makes Salinger so appealing as a man separate from his work is how personal his literary legacy feels. Going through a Holden Caulfield phase is as desirable to 15-year-olds as learning how to drive. American families will continue, as ever, to see themselves in the Glass stories, in all their tragic, dysfunctional glory. Salinger tapped into the very heart of middle class dissatisfaction, of the dark side of domesticity. We want to get close to him because he remains such a mystery.
It is no surprise, then, that the most endearing section of Slawenski's book is also the most eventful: Salinger's traumatic experience during World War II. But even his time as a soldier reveals him to be a writer in the strictest sense. He fought and survived on D-Day only to be shuffled off to the brutal Hurtgen Forest. He saw nearly continuous battle for 11 months. This did not stop him from sneaking away one night to talk shop and drink champagne with Ernest Hemingway, covering the war for Collier's, in a nearby cabin away from combat.
In between firefights, Salinger hid in foxholes to write form letters to editors and revise stories. Even in the face of death, his work was his life. A life lived entirely behind the writing desk, endlessly scratching out certain words and replacing them with better ones, can never be as interesting as the myths we dream up.