Fame is a mask that eats the face – John Updike
I was on YouTube the other night and I happened upon an old video that reminded me of this book and its subject. The clip was from 1969. Hugh Hefner was hosting the British group, Deep Purple, at his mansion in Chicago. Hef had a TV show back then, late night, a very loose piece of broadcasting that nonetheless was suffice with all the vibrations that drew millions of gents to Playboy. It was just before Hefner decamped to LA. Once amongst the palms, Hef traded in his tux for silk pyjamas and withdrew from the public eye almost altogether. He holed up in a mansion that ran on werewolf’s clock and a sybriate’s appetites. Hef built his own space-time continium in that mansion, a swinger’s paradise that gave American what it wanted without the swinger having to give himself up to America.
Perhaps that is what Salinger was after when he retreated to a modest cottage in New Hampshire not long after the publication of Catcher in the Rye. In this massive oral history, cobbled together from an unbelievable variety of sources, Shields and Salerno give us a Salinger who lost himself in an imaginary family, the Glasses, even while his own young family looked on with dismay and bewilderment.
Jerome David Salinger began well in life. His people had money and he had the looks and smarts to make the most of that advantage. Two events, not unrelated, conspired to lay him low. First, he fell for Eugene O’Neill’s daughter, Oona. Salinger wanted her badly and hit her with his best shots, including what would become his preferred method of mashing – love letters. The radiant debuttante was unmoved, however, and cast her lot with Charlie Chaplin who married her a month after she turned eighteen. The thirty six year difference between them proved to be nothing; they had eight children and the marriage flourished for thirty four years until Chaplin departed the limelight for good. For Salinger, the rejection was particularly galling, as he was trapped in Europe fighting WWII when he learned of his defeat at the hands of the old musical hall rascal. Chaplin was everything Salinger would prove not to be – sociable, entertaining, comfortable in fame yet able to best its worst to the benefit of his privacy.
If O’Neill permanently marked Salinger with a lust for nubile flesh, WWII gutted his psyche. Salinger lived through the worst the war had to give a soldier. He survived a number of nasty combat episodes as the Allies moved to finish off the Nazis. Then he participated in the liberation of one of Hitler’s concentration camps.
The biographers state early and often that Salinger understandably cracked up. Jilted and spooked, Salinger came home to America unsuitable for American life. But his madness gave the literary world two bona fide treasures. In 1948, the New Yorker published A Perfect Day for Bananafish, a short story that blew the New York literary scene out of the water. Salinger was no Norman Mailer. He didn’t pride himself on coming out of WWII a hardened existential warrior. And he wasn’t Vonnegut who managed to take his own case of shellshock and transmute it into absurdist literature suffuse with playful, almost childish humanity. To the contrary, Bananafish is a communique from the front lines of untreated and untreatable PTSD. We learn that the first half of the story came in a crucial revision process demanded by The New Yorker editors. The comely young wife of Seymour Glass tries to convince her anxious mother that Seymour, tormented by his war experiences, is getting better. Then the reader joins Seymour on the beach where he is entertaining a little girl with stories about a make-believe fish. Glass returns to his Miami Beach hotel room, takes a look at his napping wife and blows his brains out with a service revolver. Salinger was rubbing something very nasty in the face of America, a war-weary country that didn’t want to think about its brave veterans eating a gun after they’ve covertly ogled little girls on the beach. America was on the make, with flag and Jesus and easy credit on hand to sanctify the ascent and quell the primal doubts of modern existence. Salinger wrote in an authentic voice, deeply troubled yet unyielding in its alienation from American life and fatal disappointment with the world at large.
Catcher in the Rye was Salinger’s moment of truth for that voice. His short stories had bought him enormous goodwill and standing in the publishing world. He had become a staple at The New Yorker. Now he could truly reveal himself, the arrested adolescent who went to war and came home with yet another set of mental handcuffs, a troubled kid who nonetheless found a way to bear witness to the prison life of his mind in edgy prose spiced with profanities. Holden Caulfield was raging against the hypocrisies of his time. And American youth were all ears. They were mad as hell and didn’t want to take it anymore. Fuck the squares and the Russians and the bomb and apple pie. Shields and Salerno do a lovely job of piecing together how the book barely managed to make it to the presses as publisher after publisher balked at Salinger’s aggrieved prep-school dropout. When Catcher came out, the response was sensational. In less than five years, the book was being banned by schools all over the country. What Salinger had started with Bananafish, he finished with Catcher.
And then Salinger escaped New York to Cornish, New Hampshire. Years passed, then decades. While Salinger tried to capture his beloved Glass family under glass, the world tried to capture the elusive Salinger. Where had he gone? Why? Hefner went away to live out the fantasy he sold on the newsstands. Salinger went away to escape the collective fantasy of the successful author, a fantasy that shadowed his writing and weighed heavily on his compromised mind. By removing himself, he hoped, the work was left to speak for him.
But is that really true? As the book moves into its final third, Shields and Salerno provide ample evidence that Salinger was a rabid protector not just of his privacy but also his mythos. Just as Hefner fights to keep his mid-century image frozen in the public mind, so did Salinger. Holden must not grow up. He must not be seen dealing with the awful drudgery of adulthood. He must not be an old man toiling on idiosyncratic oddities. Salinger duked it out with a would-be biographer all the way to Supreme Court and emerged victorious. He took on his own daughter who wanted to air the soiled family laundry. He played footsie with publishers, big and small. And he continued to cultivate young female pen pals.
Old hard-ons die hard. No biography of Salinger would be complete with an appearance by Joyce Maynard, the ambitious literary ingenue who moved in with JD as the Summer of Love was falling apart. Here Shields and Salerno allow Maynard to give a full account of her romance, if you can call it that, with Salinger. We might have heard it all before but never in such a rich context. Looking at pictures of teenage Joyce, you can just imagine what she did for Salinger, eternally on the make for a new and improved Oona. In Bananafish, Salinger shamelessly advertised his addiction to innocence, female innocence, the kind of innocence that didn’t wear a baby doll nightie or get pregnant. And ultimately that is what caused Salinger to send Maynard packing – the realization that her innocence was not only fleeting but in flight, it could cause him the grief of more fatherhood. She wasn’t a real person; she was a place to indulge his delusions. At least Hef invited his ladies into a heated jacuzzi to get the same kicks. The Maynard saga ends with the lamentable Joyce driving up to New Hampshire, looking for closure. By then she had been dining out on her liaison with Salinger for decades. She gets what she came for with a fuselade of expletives and a door slammed in her face.
This is not a standard celebrity biography written by some Fleet Street hack eager to bring his subject down a peg or two. Nor is it a hagiography looking to give us a buffed-up JD Salinger who heroically fought to keep his literary quest pure and unsullied by the machinations and madness of fame. It is a cunningly ramshackle collection of all the source material one expects from a biography lashed together in chronological order but with no singular authorial voice. The authors don’t serve you drinks in a boat; you’re swimming in their water but the current is copacetic. Shields is an old hand at this sort of thing. In works like Reality Manifesto, he outlined a galvanic form of creative non-fiction where the reader and the writer have to do real work on the page, the former providing the potential for a meaningful collage, the latter putting it together, just barely.
Why Salinger now? The authors intimate that posthumous goodies from the Salinger vault are about to be released. No doubt this will excite some in the literary community while others will yawn. Salinger, after all, never fulfilled his promise. To use a term that he liked to use on others, he didn’t really measure up. Neither committed to the Jewish heritage of his father or the Roman Catholic heritage of his mother, Salinger lacked a compelling bassline to his writing unlike Roth, Bellow or Hemingway who all played deep and aggressive notes of an actual ethnic or moral heritage. Perhaps that’s why Alexander Portnoy is far more compelling than Holden Caulfield. Portnoy doesn’t whine that he’s misunderstood; he jacks off on the subway to show he plays by his own rules.
That said, time has proven that Salinger was probably wise to disappear. Fame is a game that has become unbelievably coarse and cruel. If not fame, people will gladly settle for infamy. Just ask Mark David Chapman. Nobody escapes from it, old or young, talented or talentless, the once proud star or the forever pathetic nobody. TMZ has a seemingly bottomless pit of cretinous young paparazzi eager to earn their bones confronting celebrities with inane barbed questions mixed with ingratiating urban patter.
Salinger also is a reminder that at one time America was a society that read, that knew the names of authors and cared deeply about their work. Literary fame was the result of actual accomplishment. Today, middling authors lay their lives bare on social media platforms for fans, setting an ugly standard that better authors feel obligated to oblige. Aren’t the books enough? In the end, perhaps not even the books were enough for Salinger. But they kept him alive long after he pulled the trigger on Seymour Glass, the man he probably was.
Timothy Dugdale is a professional copywriter and brand manager. He writes literary fiction and composes electronic music under the pseudonym Stirling Noh. Visit him at: http://noh.atomicquill.com