From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.
Coauthors Shields and Salerno take a much different approach to unveiling the hidden life of J. D. Salinger than Kenneth Slawenski took in his J. D. Salinger (2011). Both books represent nearly a decade of research, and both draw on some of the same material previously published books on and memoirs about the writer, as well as letters made available since Salinger's death (Shields and Salerno add years of interviews to the mix). Slawenski constructs a traditional biographical narrative from the stew of secondary sources, while Salerno and Shields present the same stew one bite at a time. In fact, their quasi oral history is the print companion to Salerno's recently released documentary, also titled Salinger. (The book jacket of this volume proclaims itself the official book of the acclaimed documentary film, though early reviews of the production have been almost universally negative.) The book and film follow a roughly chronological track, though the reader emerges with much less of a sense of the flow of Salinger's life here than in Slawenski's account. Instead, we get an enormous clip book showcasing the authors' research: excerpts from hundreds of interviews with people who had some contact with Salinger and dozens more who had no contact at all but experienced some of the same things Salinger did (mainly WWII) or, in the case of various celebrities, were simply moved by his work. (Do we really need to know what The Catcher in the Rye meant to John Cusack?) But the authors have unearthed some genuinely new material, including interviews with Jean Miller, the first of many teenage girls, on the cusp of adulthood, with whom Salinger had a relationship; more commentary from Salinger's fellow soldiers and from his close friend Paul Alexander than has been previously published; and new interviews with Joyce Maynard, author of a Daddy Dearest -style memoir about her years as one of the author's teen obsessions. Salinger devotees will find all of this laundry airing either endlessly fascinating or cheap and salacious, depending on their tolerance for laundry. But out of all this material, do Shields and Salerno attempt to make sense of this legendarily hidden and peculiar life? Yes, they do, and while many will find quibbles (the excessive attention, for example, paid to the fact that Salinger had only one testicle), overall their vision of Salinger conforms to much of what we have heard before: an ambitious young man who dreamed of publishing stories in the New Yorker, who went through hell in WWII (D-Day, Huertgen Forest, the Battle of the Bulge, Dachau) and who used writing he worked on Catcher throughout the war as a kind of meditation, an escape from the horrors of battle; who suffered from 1945 through his death from post-traumatic-stress syndrome, finding that fame was, for him, a new kind of battlefield to find escape from; and who finally did escape from the world by retreating to New Hampshire and by immersing himself in the Hindu philosophy Vedanta. Or, as the authors sum it up, The war broke him as a man and made him a great artist; religion offered him postwar spiritual solace and killed his art. It is a consistent point of view, and while certainly an oversimplification, it is well supported by the wealth of commentary included here. What's lost in all this welter of detail about a troubled man and his peculiar, contradictory life is Salinger's writing. There are snippets of perceptive analysis from Shields and from some of Salinger's fellow writers, and there is plenty of connecting the biographical dots (Jean Miller as the model for Esme in For Esme with Love and Squalor), but most readers will come away from this book feeling that what's lost in this messy, muddled hodgepodge of a biography about a messy, muddled life is the precision and clarity of Salinger's best stories.--Ott, Bill Copyright 2010 Booklist