The day J. D. Salinger died, anyone with a brain and a library card could tell you what was going to happen next. The publishing industry would do one of the things that the publishing industry does best: descend upon a famous dead man's estate and pick everything clean. Literary gossip maintained that Salinger had never stopped writing, that he'd kept an array of new manuscripts neatly tucked away in a safe. Those books would be released to great clamor (and profitability) by a lucky publisher on a nice, steady schedule for years after Salinger's passing. And then there would be the other race: the journey to publish the definitive biography of the author, to interview all his acquaintances while they're still alive and publish as much taboo material as quickly as possible—good biographies can take decades—while still maintaining some modicum of literary credibility.
Three years after his death, we now know that Salinger left behind at least five manuscripts, which will be published starting in 2015. We have that information thanks to the first posthumous biography of Salinger, which, seemingly flying in the face of any realistic timeline, has been published this month. The writers of Salinger, director Shane Salerno—his documentary of the same name will open on September 13—and local author/UW professor David Shields, have surreptitiously been working on the book for more than a decade.
If it's just shocking revelations you're looking for, you'll probably be happy with Salinger. The book is packed full of never-before-published photographs of the camera-shy author, both in his youth and during his four decades of hermitage in New Hampshire. Salerno and Shields speed through Salinger's 91 years in just shy of 600 pages, giving extra attention to the most lascivious moments. (Shields reminds us repeatedly throughout the book that Salinger had a congenital defect, an undescended testicle, and he attributes so much meaning to Salinger's relationship with his single ball that it almost becomes the genital version of Citizen Kane's Rosebud.)
What nobody can deny is the fact that Salinger lived an exceptional life. He landed on the beach at Normandy on D-Day. He fought through Europe during World War II, befriending Ernest Hemingway along the way. He was one of the first US soldiers to lay eyes on a Nazi concentration camp. Even before the war, Salinger lived a bizarre life, losing his first girlfriend, Oona O'Neill (daughter of Eugene O'Neill), to a 54-year-old Charlie Chaplin, a trauma that would play out in reverse during his dotage, as he seduced and abandoned a succession of very young women. Add in the fact that he's the world-famous author of one of the most popular books of the 20th century, and that he swore off a public life fairly early in his career, and Salinger becomes practically a biographer's wet dream. It seems like it would be impossible to screw this story up.
Salerno and Shields haven't quite screwed it up, but they haven't exactly produced a book for the ages, either. Salinger fails both in structure and in tone, making for a highly unsatisfactory reading experience. Salinger is the highest-profile book yet to test the thesis of Shields's 2010 anti-narrative manifesto Reality Hunger. In that book, using a style that was heavily reminiscent of author David Markson's masterpieces Reader's Block and Vanishing Point, Shields argued that modern readers do not have the patience for the frippery and delayed gratification of most traditional narratives.
And so Salinger is constructed out of bits and pieces of trivia, giving the book the appearance of an oral history, but it's really something less than that. Whereas Studs Terkel's oral histories were highly crafted symphonies of rhythm and voice, Salinger appears to be a cluster of note cards shuffled into something resembling chronological order. Each little burst of text is culled from a different source: books about World War II, chunks of interviews having nothing to do with Salinger, and pieces of Salinger's prose interspersed throughout to add emotional depth. It's really just the bare bones of a great biography, without any of the technical skill or, really, the writing, on top.
I don't mean to disparage the research. Salerno and Shields interviewed more than 200 people for Salinger, many of whom hadn't spoken on the record about the man before. The fact that the interviewers managed to break the omertà surrounding Salinger—the author would immediately, and with great prejudice, cut off any friend, lover, or acquaintance who talked to the press about him—is a credit to their researching skills. I can't wait to watch the documentary that accompanies the book, if just to watch the faces of Salinger's friends as they publicly talk about him for the first time.
But when it comes to biographies, the research is only half the job. The minimal authorial intrusion in Salinger mostly comes in the form of short blurbs, casting Shields and Salerno as additional contributors to the oral history. Shields's additions tend to be of the sweeping, obvious variety: "Eugene O'Neill's absence was the formative event of Oona O'Neill's life," for example, or "[Salinger] was a twenty-five-year-old ghost, looking for rebirth, placing stamps on envelopes sent stateside. Writing about the war was the only way for Salinger to survive the war. He was seeking oblivion, but he was also seeking fame." At its worst, Salinger is too simpleminded and too sycophantic to fully plumb the depths of all that research (the actor Edward Norton is summoned as a kind of expert witness on fame, even though he has nothing to add to the conversation).
A good biography is by definition a good piece of writing. Biographies of great writers, especially, should be of high literary quality. Salinger, with his brilliance and his monstrous flaws, deserves better than this unfinished, leering text. One day, he'll be the subject of a truly great biography, a beautifully written work of genius, and Salinger will probably be an important resource for the creation of that book.