Does your dad drink his own urine? Does he consider a piece of cheese a full meal? Does he sleep with teenage girls and let them move in with you? Is he a recluse? Has he written books that have inspired lunatics to kill hippie-love rock stars? No matter how badly you think you had it, Margaret A. Salinger can beat you. Her dad is the creator of Holden Caulfield. Try living with that one.
It is hard enough to grow up without having your father be a giant on the literary scene, a sensitive auteur so marked by the constant and inalienable traumas he suffered at the hands of his adoring and equally sensitive public that he moved to New Hampshire, living like Boo Radley in an old house with wives and the occasional girlfriend and a medicine chest full of herbal remedies designed to stave off the horrors of aging. J. D. Salinger, author of THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, the man who wrote the most classic tale of alienation and teenage angst in American letters, is no mere ghost. Margaret, a basketball-loving girl who didn't think of her dad as some remarkable cultural icon, has now written a simple and almost balanced tome to the man who sired her.
Starting with the rampant anti-Semitism that her half-Jewish father's family faced before and after WW II, she chronicles the life of the mind that her father found as well as the life of the heart, semi-faithful but never sentimental, that he found with her mother. Although the marriage produced both Margaret and her brother Matthew (who made a run at actor stardom in the '80s), it did not last, and Margaret blames dear old dad and his large cast of eccentricities for the divorce. Then there is her own life with dad, none too pretty or happy, and her strange relationship with her mother to dwell upon --- neither seems to have brought her anything but angst.
Coming on the heels of another Salinger memoir, this time penned by former teen wunderkind/girlfriend/object of emotional abuse Joyce Maynard (who offers that Salinger taught her how to throw up her food after every meal he deigned "unhealthy," thus causing her anorexia), it is interesting to get Margaret's perspective on Dad's choice of paramours. She remembers Maynard as a pathetic young woman whom she could not get close to, nor did she want to; and she recounts her horror at finding out that the skinny little writer and the tall old writer had consummated their weird union on her own bed. It's one of the few moments where she doesn't find some interesting context for Dad's actions --- usually, as if trying to convince herself that maybe Salinger wasn't always a scary guy, she tries to explain away his behavior.
Margaret isn't a bad writer herself. She doesn't really let her father off the hook for all the absurdities through which they've passed together. And yet she doesn't seem to hate him. Nor does she seem to think that Dad really hates her for doing this. And she believes that even when you grow up in the arena of an artistic genius you still have a hard time understanding the people who brought you into this world and thus have to suffer in order to find yourself. In the end, Margaret A. Salinger could be any dysfunctional family member in the world. DREAM CATCHER (get it --- "Catcher" in the title) grabs onto the myths about the famous man and rips them to shreds, for our own entertainment and Margaret's obvious attempts at sanity. If it takes you longer than an hour to finish this book, well, you're a big "phony," as Holden Caulfield would say.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on September 6, 2000