This documentary portrait of the reclusive Catcher in the Rye author manages to come up with some interesting new titbits, but doesn't radically change our view of the author
"If there's one thing I hate, it's the movies," declared Holden Caulfield. Not so his creator who nursed youthful dreams of being an actor and liked nothing better, later in life, than to curl up in front of John Huston's The Maltese Falcon, Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, or his personal favourite Frank Capra's Lost Horizon, in which Ronald Colman crash-lands in the Himalayas and stumbles across the secret of eternal youth. The perfect Salinger combination: enlightenment plus milkshake.
That the famously retiring author was engaged in a lifelong pursuit of the same, whether in his work or with women, is the contention of a new documentary, produced by Harvey Weinstein, and directed by Shane Salerno, the screenwriter who gave us Michael Bay's Armageddon, Oliver Stone's Savages, and other such sylphine tributes to innocence lost. You don't know what would offend Salinger more: the invasion of his privacy, or the fact that he was so intruded upon by the man who authored the line, "The United States government just asked us to save the world — anyone wanna say no?"
This film packs something of the same irresistibility. Salinger fans will see it through a frown of disdain, emitting occasional whimpers of protest, but see it they will for its revelations, dropped at cunningly dispersed intervals throughout an otherwise wearying two-hour-and-15-minute running time. This is very much Salinger in the eyes of Hollywood, with lots of ambition, demons, plushly exaggerated love interest, a portentous score that never quite dispels the suspicion that Bruce Willis will soon arrive and start blasting asteroids, plus an array of talking heads plucked from Harvey's Rolodex: Martin Sheen, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ed Norton, even – God bless him – Judd Apatow, prompting the unbidden thought that Holden Caulfield could easily have slipped into the cast-list of Freaks and Geeks, no question.
Of Salinger himself we see very little, of course, save for some re-enactments from a dynamic and swarthy young actor. See Salinger pounding away at his typewriter! Hefting logs up a mountainside! Running down a wrought-iron staircase (the same wrought-iron staircase, I believe, prowled by Jack Nicholson in Mike Nichols's Wolf) upon being rejected by Farrar-Strauss! And then just as you're about to pelt the screen with peanuts for sheer phoniness, we get the real thing: the only known film footage of the actual Salinger, shot during the war, when he was at his most tall, dark and Clive Owenish, doffing his hat to Parisian women offering him flowers. He takes a single flower and tucks it into his hat brim — a piece of gallantry he nonetheless performs with ineffable and beguiling shyness.
Salinger's war years have already been comprehensively detailed in Kenneth Slawenski's 2010 biography, but here come fleshed out with some riveting archival footage. He had the kind of war that would make even Spielberg blush: storming the beaches of Normandy with 60 pages of Catcher in the Rye tucked under his uniform, surviving the Battle of the Bulge and "meat-grinder" of Hürtgen forest – they don't say so here, but Salinger's unit had a survival rate of one in four – before stumbling across the ashen horror of Dachau. Afterwards, Salinger promptly hospitalised himself for what the film-makers call a "nervous breakdown", from which proceeds their Big Idea — that, "the second world war made Salinger", in the words of one of their countless talking heads. "It's the ghost in the machine of all the stories."
It's certainly true that he saw enough combat – an astonishing 299 hours – to deprive a man of his wits, or that the voice that Salinger crafted for Holden Caulfield – marvellously intelligent, supple, quicksilver, only ever inches from a crack-up – can only have gained its fractured depth from his wartime experiences. It may even have something to do with the kamikaze arc of his work, which for all its pellucid brilliance and uncanny inner-ear, remains American literature's most heartbreaking case of arrested development. Salinger was a genius of immaturity, stuck in "a fantasy of innocence" in the words of Jean Miller, the 14-year-old he picked in Florida with the words "How's Heathcliff?" when he saw what she was reading. "Troubled," she replies. What follows is the film at its most winsomely naïve: seaside strolls, violin swells and lines like "he remained haunted by the love affair that never was". Yeah, right. Until he has sex with them, at which point the girls turn into women and Salinger runs for the hills.
The resulting portrait, for all Salinger's peculiarity, seems horribly familiar. You don't need the war to explain his relentless deforestation of friends and family. The technical term for this is "literary genius" – in Salinger's case, a lightning strike of such force as to blacken anyone standing in the immediate vicinity – even, in the end, his readers, although Salinger's famous retreat from the raucous din of publishing to pursue the zen-like purity of writing for it's own sake turned out to be something of a feint. In the doc's biggest coup, we find out that the fabled Salinger safe contains five unpublished works: two novels, one about his counter-intelligence work, and one a "love story" based on his first marriage to a German woman, a book about Salinger's beloved Vedanta Hinduism (yawn), a reworked Holden Caulfield story Last and Best of the Peter Pans, and some new stories about Seymour Glass.
Most revealingly of all, each came with little green or red dot indicating which manuscripts required further work and which were ready for publication, and on what date. Shock, horror. He needed us after all.
The simple, sad answer is: because everyone did. There are certain artists, and some art, that become so popular that everyone peers into them, finding whatever they will, however they will. All the usual tests of sympathy, natural feeling, and do-I-really-respond-to-this? are lost in the gravitational pull of ubiquity. Not surprisingly, the artists who are, briefly, the beneficiaries and thereafter the victims of this kind of attention get totally freaked out by the intensity of it all: not too long after, Bob Dylan, another of the tribe, recorded his notorious “Self Portrait,” just back out in a new version, trying to demonstrate to his admirers the simple truth that he was an American singer, with a broad taste for American songs, not some kind of guru or mystic or oracle, please go away. It didn’t help.
These questions come to mind in reading David Shields and Shane Salerno’s heavily hyped biography “Salinger” (Simon & Schuster), not least because, in one of the most bizarre sections of a bizarre book, they themselves raise the issue of murder-by-bad-reading, in connection with the murder (fearful symmetry!) of the Beatles’ John Lennon by Mark Chapman, who happened to have hallucinated a motive within “The Catcher in the Rye.” Shields and Salerno’s own peculiar view of Salinger forces them to insist that Chapman was not just a crazy hallucinant, but in his own misguided way an insightful reader, responding to the “huge amount of psychic violence in the book.” Now, there is a section in “Catcher” in which Holden fantasizes about shooting the pimp who has set him up with a prostitute, but it is exactly a bit of extended irony about the movies and their effect on everyone’s imagination: a defusing of vengeance fantasies. In Salerno’s “acclaimed documentary film” (as the book’s jacket calls it), meanwhile, a witness points out that the word “kills” occurs with ominous regularity in the text—failing to acknowledge that this is Holden’s slang for the best things that happen to him. “She kills me” is what Holden says about his beloved little sister Phoebe. There’s no more “violence” implicit in the usage than there is sublimated religiosity in Holden’s New York cabbies saying “Jesus Christ!” It’s just an American idiom, lovingly preserved by a master of them.
That Chapman’s reading strikes the authors as logical, if unfortunate, is just one demonstration, in a strange chop-shop biography, that they are no more interested in Salinger the writer or artist than the people who go through Dylan’s garbage cans are really interested in Dylan. In both book and bad movie, a simple theory is flogged: that Salinger was a victim of P.T.S.D., screwed up by a brutal combat experience in the Second World War. It’s a truth that, as far as it goes, Salinger himself dramatized at beautiful length in his story “For Esmé—with Love And Squalor,” and then left behind. (Holden is far too young to be a veteran, and Seymour Glass, so far as a close reader can tell, was in the armed forces, like most of his generation, but never in combat: the proximate cause of his suicide is a bad marriage, not a bad war.)
In any case, Salinger’s work emphatically editorializes its moral point, which is about as far from celebrating or even sublimating violence as any writing can be. No writer could ever have had his moral pluses and minuses so neatly, so columnarly, arranged and segregated off from each other. Phoebe, the Fat Lady, Esmé, innocence, and small domestic epiphanies are good. Violence, the military, cruelty are all bad. To make this view somehow its opposite is to refuse to read what’s there on the page, in search of something that might sit better on Page Six. That Salinger was wounded, like many of a generation, by combat is obvious; that it “explains” everything he wrote after is the kind of five-cent psychiatry that gives a bad name to nickels. (In any case, as the authors admit, Salinger already had six or so chapters of the book finished before he set foot in France, while the Holdenish sensibility—if not Holden’s sweetness and essential helplessness—was shared by hundreds of artists of the period, most of whom had never held a rifle.)
But then Salinger as writer, or craftsman, or just listener—with a perfect ear for the sound of American mid-century speech—is invisible throughout. The subject of the book and documentary is not Salinger the writer but Salinger the star: exactly the identity he spent the last fifty years of his life trying to shed. Cast entirely in terms of celebrity culture and its discontents, every act of Salinger’s is weighed as though its primary purpose was to push or somehow extend his “reputation”—careerism is simply assumed as the only motive a writer might have. If he withdraws from the world, well, what could be more of a come on? If it turns out that hehasn’t entirely withdrawn from the world but has actually participated in it happily enough on his own terms: well, didn’t we tell you the whole recluse thing was an act? This kind of scrutiny might possibly say something about a writer like Mailer, whose loudest energies (if not his best ones) were spent playing in the public square, not to mention Macy’s windows. But it couldn’t be worse suited to a writer like Salinger, the spell of whose work is cast, after all, entirely by the micro-structure of each sentence—on choosing to italicize this word, rather than that; on describing a widower’s left rather than right hand; on the ear for dialogue and the feeling for detail; above all, on the jokes. (Salinger, as Wilfrid Sheed long ago pointed out in the best thing ever written about his style, was first of all a humorist, trained on other humorists. The two writers who meant the most to Salinger, Ring Lardner and Scott Fitzgerald, seem left largely, if not completely, out of the book’s discussion—though Hemingway, the celebrity writer whom he briefly courted but never imitated, is made much of. A book about J. D. Salinger with no Ring Lardner in it, one can say with certainty, is a book about something other than J. D. Salinger.)
The “documentary” method that the book employs is what was once quaintly called a “clip-job”—the kind of celebrity bio where, in the guise of research, previously published work is passed off, with varying degrees of honesty, as original discovery. Journalists who never met Salinger, old “friends” who saw him last in 1948, are quoted fragmentarily, in the manner of the kind of oral history that Jean Stein and George Plimpton used to honorably assemble, while large chunks of quotations are lifted out of other people’s published work and plunked right down alongside the rest, as though these writers, too, had stopped by for a chat. These unwilling contributors see their work chopped up and recycled without any indication on the page of its source. (You can, with diligent effort, figure out what’s from where by consulting the notes in the back, but surely the ordinary reader can’t be expected to show such diligence, and will understandably assume that everything is, so to speak, on the same level.) Gossip is offered interchangeably with fact, bald speculation is sold as though double-checked, salacious rumor (Salinger had one testicle!) is accepted with a shrug: well, somebody said it. To take one example among a hundred, John Updike’s intricately wrought review of “Franny and Zooey”—indicating both his debt to Salinger, which he admits is enormous, and his qualms about “Zooey,” which are real, and his conviction that, in any case, Salinger was a brave artist making a journey on behalf of us all—is reduced to a “merciless” dismissal, one writer from the grave breezily zinging another. (A significant bit of praise from that review appears in another place, pages from the put-down.)
Shields, of course, has written an entire testament, the manifesto-like book called “Reality Hunger,” in defense of the chop-shop approach to prose, with a high-minded po-mo appeal to the constant recycling of other people’s words as itself a kind of originality. Like many other capitalist ventures, though, this involves taking intricate handiwork done by other people, breaking it up, and selling it off again without permission, not to mention payment. If you have persuaded yourself that invention and recycling are the same thing, then you can’t begin to make sense of someone who would spend seven or eight hours a day laboring over a single line. This puts you in terrible shape with a writer like Salinger, who feels his entire life at stake over a semi-colon. What can he be doing all day in his “bunker” except stewing over his obsessions?
Throughout book and film both, the focus is leeringly on Salinger’s presumed oddities, the authors of this book seeming never to have met any others. That the writer who can be contagiously charming on the page might be actually rather ornery and difficult to live with is a revelation only to one who has never spoken to a writer’s spouse. And an urge to escape from the world, far from being an aberrant impulse driven by neurosis, or shame at an anatomical oddity, is just part of what American writers have always been up to. E. B. White, as Sheed points out, beat Salinger to the north country by a decade, for similar reasons, while Thomas Merton became a major literary figure in those same fifties by going into a honest-to-God monastery and publishing his stuff from there.
What is true is that Salinger, through no fault or even an act of his own, save publishing a book whose reception no one could have anticipated, became the victim/beneficiary of the kind of hyper-fame that usually gets reserved for singers and actors. Seen that way, there is little that’s peculiar or pathological about Salinger’s retreat, though much in it that’s sad. A book about a week in the life of a sensitive, observant kid—affectionately viewed by the author, as one might a teen-age son or a younger brother, but hardly idolized—became a bible to a whole generation. (The ironies could not have eluded the author, since the one thing that a loner like Holden doesn’t want to be is the voice of a generation—his contemporaries being the very thing he has most contempt for.)
That the book gave Salinger the real, mind-bending, freak-out kind of fame early on was a blessing in certain respects—one important reason that he didn’t publish was because he didn’t have to. It was a curse in most others, however, since it created the circumstance in which a parade of random stalkers felt free to come up to his driveway and ask him to tell them how to run their lives. His trouble was that the writing was him, or seemed to be, in the sense that the stories gave an impression, however misleading, of being personal sources of wisdom, judgment, or good advice. Most people who get this treatment retreat to a Graceland or Neverland. Salinger retreated to New Hampshire. (Philip Roth got the treatment for a period after “Portnoy,” and it was so disconcerting—success on such a scale being “as baffling as misfortune”—that he wrote a couple of novels just about what it felt like.) For what it’s worth, the movie suggests that Salinger responded to most of the stalkers with surprising generosity, trying to explain to them that he was a fiction writer, not a guru. It didn’t help him, either.
For the rest—aside from the genuine news that Salinger made a strange, short marriage to a German girl he met during the occupation—there are no real revelations here, with the New Hampshire years mostly sketched from already familiar memoirs by family members and ex-lovers. There is a lot of prurient gossip about Salinger and his courtship of teen-age (not, to be sure, prepubescent) girls, although it does seem that if you had been imprinted on, and then rejected by, the exquisite seventeen-year-old Oona O’Neill, there would be no mystery in spending your life searching for her duplicate. (Of their claim of new books to come from Salinger, tacked on in the movie in titles with pointlessly ominous music playing, about all one can say is, Hope so! And add that it seems unlikely that someone with so good an ear would call anything “The Family Glass,” and that one of the few forthcoming stories specified, about a party in the nineteen-twenties, was already explicitly promised by Salinger himself, in the introduction to his story “Hapworth 16, 1924.”)
We have decided, legally and mostly morally, that our interest in telling truths about human life is always greater than our need to protect people’s privacy, at least after the people are dead, and so be it. But if you want to grasp why silence is so appealing to artists whose audience has grown too loud—John Lennon himself withdrew for many years, then tried peeking out again, with the tragic results we know—here it is. Indeed, the great advantage of the whole new episode is this: from now on, if you want to understand why the young J. D. Salinger fled New York publishing, fanatic readers, eager biographers, disingenuous interpreters, character assassination in the guise of “scholarship,” and the literary world generally, you need only open this book.