For those of us raised on the perfection of Salinger’s prose, a tour through the foibles of his character, the mess of his past—”all that David Copperfield kind of crap,” as he famously put it in The Catcher in the Rye—catches one short.
That’s likely because Salinger offered few glimpses of the hard substance that lay behind his brilliant, ethereal, chatty stories and novellas, from A Perfect Day for Bananafish and beyond. Yet it was his own narrative—as a staff sergeant in the Second World War, he helped liberate Dachau—that formed the basis for both his best fiction and those notorious decades hidden, Howard Hughes-style, in a New Hampshire cottage. Holden Caulfield, his most enduring creation, was Salinger’s constant companion on the German front, where “his pockets burned with pages of The Catcher in the Rye, with their scenes of children ice-skating and little girls in soft blue dresses,” as Slawenski writes in his readable, comprehensive and only occasionally too reverent biography. Negotiating the war’s aftermath (Salinger suffered post-traumatic stress disorder) also led to the mysticism that infused the lives of his later characters.
Slawenski’s Salinger, cocky and ambitious in his youth, is all too human. He lost his first love, Oona O’Neill, to the much older Charlie Chaplin, and compared notes with Hemingway during the war. He sometimes approached women for dates claiming to be a goalie for the Montreal Canadiens. Yet the overriding trait that emerges is Salinger’s capacity for hard work (often at the expense of his relationships). His stories were rebuffed for years, particularly by the New Yorker; still, he continued writing furiously. In the end it was help from New Yorker editor William Shawn, with whom he holed up for months to produce his final novellas, that brought him closest to his goal—a fusion of fiction and prayer. Slawenski sheds no light on his output after 1965, though legend describes a vault full of unpublished fiction; what’s made achingly clear is how lonely that legend had left Salinger by the time he died last year.