When I read THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, I was just two years older than its protagonist, the supremely white-bread, intellectual prep-school flunk-out Holden Caulfield. He was a nervous wreck of a teenage boy who was destined to show a generation a new way of looking at itself. Comparable only to THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN, the novel centered on this kid who came of age before coming of age was trendy. It was the first book I had ever read that talked the way I talked, thought the way I thought.
The hidden message was: You Are Not Alone. In the mid-20th century, this was tantamount to a spiritual apotheosis. It had a smattering of four-letter words (sort of, if you count “chrissake” as four letters), and its tone was tired, cynical, sad and hilarious. The adolescent odyssey was laced with tenderness, seaminess and liberal lashings of sarcasm. It was, in all, a great book, and the one-card trick of the mysterious, possibly mystical, world-weary, word-obsessed inheritor of the American writers’ zeitgeist, Jerome David Salinger.
Kenneth Slawenski brings no strong personal agenda to the composition of this book, save what looks a bit like hero worship. He states that he very much wanted to compose an objective bio of the secretive Salinger, after laboring faithfully in the vineyards for years as a Salinger blogger. His book is part biography, detailed as to Salinger’s early life, but casting little light on his later years when the author went into purposeful, some might say paranoid, seclusion to avoid the likes of Slawenski poking around; and part paean to Salinger’s published works, which are recounted in almost cheat-book detail. Slawenski has developed many theories about THE CATCHER IN THE RYE as well as about the short stories and two longer works (call them long short stories or novellas, as you will), and he has given himself free rein to explore them.
High on Slawenski’s list of talking points is that Salinger was scarred and deeply moved by his service in the U.S. military. PTSD was unknown at the time, and patriotism was no shame. Salinger volunteered to serve in World War II, first in the trenches and then for the intelligence service (he hunted down collaborators in Europe after the war, and was present at the liberation of many concentration camps). After the war, Salinger suddenly took a wife and came home all better, though the marriage quickly dissolved and it was clear --- Slawenski correctly perceives from Salinger’s stories --- that he was anything but better. However, and this is the second major talking point, he had developed a transcendent view of life, centered mainly on the innocence and transformative power of childhood. This accounts for many of the most memorable scenes in his published works, notably Holden Caulfield imagining himself catching children “in the rye” to prevent them from falling off a hidden cliff.
Not long after Salinger had securely inherited the prize he sought, the mantle of American prose once worn by such greats as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway (whom Salinger met in Paris on the day the city was liberated), he took his fame and stuffed it away. He seemed to have despised his admirers as much as his critics, convinced that no one understood Salinger as well as Salinger. He was, in Slawenski’s words, “gleefully litigious,” locking legal horns with anyone who dared to take his name in vain. Ex-wives, all of them far younger than him, told tales of isolation and cold celibacy, and rumors abounded --- that he sat in an orgone box, had consultations with L. Ron Hubbard, was on a macrobiotic diet (none of these recounted in this book). I remember being told that he wrote one sentence a day; where that notion came from I have no idea, but once a person disappears, he makes himself a target for all kinds of speculation. One true thing was Salinger’s long-time connection to Vedanta, an aspect Slawenski emphasizes, perhaps because it best fits his well-constructed picture of the author.
There is no doubt that THE CATCHER IN THE RYE is a book for the ages, one of the bestselling novels of recent history. Though Salinger’s other works are charming in their way, none comes close to his one complete book. Reading Slawenski’s life of Salinger may do you a great favor, encouraging you to read THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, or to re-read it, as so many people have. If it does that, it was worth the effort.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on March 28, 2011