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Kenneth Slawenski has almost absorbed JD Salinger by osmosis, the writer becoming part of his breathing out and breathing in. Slawenski’s understanding of Salinger is basic, almost on the chromosome level as though he had incorporated Salinger into his genes so that the two of them- biographer and write- are twin souls. However, Slawenski says in the introduction that when Salinger died in January 2010, he did not mourn, but gave him a salute. It took Slawenski seven years to write this biography and it can be said to be the horse’s mouth as far as Jerome David Salinger is concerned.
One of the most interesting parts of the book is the chapters on World War II. Salinger had enlisted and eventually became a sergeant and this young man from a posh address in New York City stormed the Normandy Beach on D - Day and then spent unspeakable days and nights slogging through mud, crouching in fox holes with the snow coming down on his head but actually taking time when he could to write even in a fox hole. He saw the liberation of Paris but went right back in the fox holes crawling step by step fox hole to fox hole toward Berlin and the Battle of the Bulge. He managed to sneak under darkness into Hemingway’s camp as the author was on location as a war correspondent. And all the while, once even when crouching under a table with his typewriter, trying to avoid mortar shells, Salinger wrote. The war forged his writing and his soul and he was never again the same debonair, rather heedless young man he once was. Slawenski says that Salinger was not writing out of patriotism or with approval of Allied commanders’ policies. He was writing for and about the boy next to him and these boys died by the thousands. The war was a baptism in fire.
Salinger lived to be 91 years old, and Slawenski follows him closely throughout his long life, through his three marriages, through his fencing with magazine editors, through the publication of The Catcher in the Rye, through his withdrawal from public life as he became reclusive and absorbed in Zen Buddhism. And much, much more. This is a very turgid and comprehensive biography.
Catcher hung in the complaisant decade of the fifties rather like an underdone potato. The book was very radical for that era, full of obscenities and adolescent angst which not everybody appreciated or even understood. The book seems to polarize readers, with some loving it, some hating it and nobody effecting a lukewarm middle ground reaction.
But Salinger, in spite of the phenomenal success of Catcher felt the need for isolation far from any people or anything that was phony or pretentious. The farmhouse he bought in Cornish, New Hampshire, was primitive and isolated but not isolated enough. When he brought his second wife, Claire, to live there and he became the father of a baby girl, Margaret, he erected a concrete structure away from the farmhouse where he could write in total seclusion. He even refused an invitation from Jackie Kennedy to visit the White House, which made Clair furious.
Salinger’s Franny and Zooey was finally published after years of wrangling with publishers and that book may be the writer’s magnum opus, not Catcher. Slawenski writes excellent critiques of all of Salinger’s works and this biography is particularly helpful in explaining difficult or obscure aspects of Salinger’s stories.
Salinger: A Life is a page-turner, unusual in a biography. You will feel you got to know the reclusive writer quite well. Salinger would be horrified that his protective shields were torn away but the reader will be delighted to see Salinger naked, so to speak.
Slawenski sums up his book thusly:
“By examining the life of JD Salinger, with all its sadness and imperfections…we are charged with the revaluation of our own lives, an assessment of our own connections and the weighing of our own integrity.”
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