Telling the story of a literary figure’s life can be hard. How much information can be gleaned from one’s fictional work versus the biographical facts of one’s ”real” life? In the case of J.D. Salinger — almost as well-known for his fierce need for privacy as for his most famous book, The Catcher in the Rye — the task seems almost insurmountable. Roughly a year to the day after Salinger’s death at 91 (after spending much of his life, even up to the very end, trying to block unauthorized works) comes J.D. Salinger: A Life, yet another attempt to crack the Salinger mystery.
Kenneth Slawenski makes no excuses about being a downright ardent fan. In his introduction he explains that he’s long maintained a website devoted to Salinger’s life and works, and has spent seven years ”chipping away” at this biography. His reverence for Salinger’s writing is evident in every step of this impressively researched book. For those truly well versed in the Salinger oeuvre, it should prove greatly satisfying to learn about the context and history of lesser-known short stories like ”The Hang of It” (first published by Collier’s in 1941) or ”Slight Rebellion off Madison,” which is considered to be the early genesis of The Catcher in the Rye (and struggling wannabe Salingers can take heart while learning of his struggles to get published in The New Yorker!). But for those who can’t recite ”Teddy” or ”A Perfect Day for Bananafish” by heart, the long, careful parsing of the various texts will grow tiresome. What’s more, there are few real glimpses into the author’s long-shrouded inner life — for example, one of Salinger’s more publicized affairs, with then-18-year-old Joyce Maynard, is brought up, discussed, and dismissed within two paragraphs. Anyone looking for an intelligent and thought-provoking literary dissection of Salinger’s works will find it here. But Salinger the man never comes into full focus. B