The book junks narrative in favour of a talking heads format which, presumably, mimics the documentary. There's a paragraph from person X, then a paragraph from person Y, and so on. You admire how many voices they've assembled, and – particularly in the early sections in which veterans of the same battles Salinger fought in during the second world war describe the carnage – the pace and attack with which it rattles along. But "rattle" is the word: as in something a baby uses to get attention; the noise made by a large hollow vessel with a couple of small nuggets not properly secured inside it.
There's no index. There are scant descriptions of who these speakers are (and you have to flick to the back to find them), and you are often left dangling as to why we're hearing from them at all. Ed Norton, the actor, isn't the only contributor whose locus standi to speak about Salinger appears to be that he is famous. Nor are the sources of these quotes consistently clear. Some are original interviews with the authors – which I suppose we must take for verbatim, though they don't always read that way. Some are simply lifted from other people's books. Some, even more confusingly, are "combinations of oral testimony and written source".
The endnotes are sometimes not much help. A line from Oona O'Neill (whom Salinger dated as a young man before being thrown over for Charlie Chaplin), is given no more persuasive citation than that it was "quoted in" a 1996 article for People magazine. A long chunk of Salinger's one-time lover Joyce Maynard is sourced just to "Joyce Maynard". Is it lifted from her memoir? An original interview with David Shields and Shane Salerno? We don't know.
To add to the madness, rather than framing and evaluating the evidence they present, Shields and Salerno insert themselves into the text as witnesses: a paragraph of what Shields thinks here; a paragraph of what Salerno thinks there. What they say is seldom tentative – they make impudently categorical assertions about Salinger's state of mind and the relationship of his life to his art – and yet its authority is, perversely, undermined by just being another voice in the gabble.
The format implies that anything that has been said about Salinger, by virtue of its having been said, carries as much authority as anything else that has been said. This at once obviates the difficult and serious part of any biographer's job (getting to the truth), and – happily – allows any amount of hearsay to be presented as fact, circumstantial evidence (the war was awful!) as probative, or speculation as analysis. This will not do.
Yet, as I say, the book isn't worthless. For into this idiotic meat-grinder, the authors have hurled some chunks of prime sirloin. They have spent nearly a decade researching, they have been dogged, and they have enjoyed success. There is new material here: not tonnes, but a nontrivial amount. The authors make a vulgar song and dance about it – "published here for the first time"; "for 60 years she has kept silent", and so on – but they are perhaps entitled to. There are some scoops: many previously unseen letters and photographs and interviews with several people who knew Salinger and have not spoken before.
Absent the testimonies of his widow, his second wife and his children, this book contains most of what is available to know about Salinger the man. Unfortunately, it also contains a great deal of what is not possible to know, presented as if it were. That Salinger was suffering from "undiagnosed PTSD" is at once offered as a revelation of great explanatory force, and as something more or less self-evidencing: we know that Salinger's unit in the second world war fought through some horrendous stuff, and was first into Dachau. From the ungainsayable – that it must have affected him somehow – we leap to the unknowable – that it broke his mind for good and that The Catcher in the Rye was a disguised war novel.
We know that his war buddies became lifelong friends, and we learn a decent amount about his work as a counterintelligence officer. There's interesting, apparently new, material about his first marriage – swiftly annulled – to a German girl he met in the war; the hint is that they broke up because she was a Gestapo informant.
His obsession with becoming a writer, at least, predated any wartime trauma. He was already carrying chapters of Catcher around with him in his knapsack, and pitching work for publication. We hear (though third-hand) that his comrades complained "we always had to stop for Salinger to sit by the roadside, working on short stories or his novel".
We are also told – mostly on the basis of someone who claimed to have heard Salinger tell Hemingway about it – that Salinger had an undescended testicle. This putative monobollock (which didn't seem to harm his sex life much) comes first in the numbered list of "conditions" – a checklist, effectively, of What Made Him All Weird – that stand for a "Conclusion".
God knows, many of Shields and Salerno's speculations – if they were just less thunderously declaimed – are sensible. That Salinger was a selfish, damaged man is undeniable. The great recluse undoubtedly played footsie, too, with the many seekers-after-truth who showed up at the bottom of his drive over the years – though whether this is evidence of calculating hypocrisy, as they come to imply, rather than just confusion and even politeness is more questionable.
Also, they do a good job of persuading us that Salinger had a slightly creepy obsession with teenage girls – romancing several of them and then dumping them once they turned into women. He may not have had sex with Jean Miller until she was 18, and did so at her instigation – but he did start courting her when she was 14 and they shared a bed, Michael Jackson-style, when she slept over.
About Salinger the writer – other than that his writing was more important to him than his life – this book has little or nothing to tell us. His fiction ("iconic", "legendary", "the literary anthem of a generation") is reduced to an epiphenomenon of his trauma: a symptom rather than a work of conscious art. Inane pop psychology ("this is how paranoids, mystics and pedophiles think") and glib formulations abound: "The war broke him as a man and made him a great artist; religion offered him postwar spiritual solace and killed his art." His obsession with Hindu mysticism (suffusing, they argue more or less persuasively, his writing about the Glass family) is used to construct a rigid map of his life.
So tin-eared are the authors that they declare the New York Times "had an almost schizophrenic view" of Catcher on the basis that reviewers for the Sunday and daily editions didn't agree – which would be like accusing Guardian Media Group of having a schizophrenic view of Martin Amis if he got a positive notice in the Review and a stinker in the Observer. A good review in the New Yorker (whose fiction editors hadn't liked the book for serial) is "a startling volte face". How do they think literary journalism works? No matter. They claim to have information that we'll be seeing five posthumous Salinger books between 2015 and 2020. There'll be time enough for schizophrenia then.