Unlocking the door on J.D. Salinger's life

Author JD Salinger poses for a portrait as

Author JD Salinger poses for a portrait as he reads from his classic American novel "The Catcher in the Rye" on November 20, 1952 in Brooklyn. Salinger died on January 27, 2010. (Credit: Getty)

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The brassy, foul-mouthed cadences of Holden Caulfield in "The Catcher in the Rye" are as distinctive as those in "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," that other American classic about boyhood and its discontents. But Holden is more than a smart aleck. Through him, J.D. Salinger found a way to express spiritual yearnings - "Catcher," among other things, is about a quest for authenticity - that still resonate with readers today. Banned and beloved in equal measure, the 1951 classic is still a rite of passage for many high school students. But for adults who want to discover it anew, or read it for the first time, there is much to stir the soul.

Salinger, who died a year ago this week, was one of America's best-known authors - not that he wanted the reputation. Notoriously reclusive, Salinger slowly wound down his career in the years after "Catcher" was published. He stripped later editions of any biographical or pictorial evidence of his existence; long before Roland Barthes' fashionable theories about the death of the author, Salinger practiced a kind of virtual extinction. He cut off contact with old friends, and, with few exceptions, refused interviews. He was neurotically litigious. Salinger's turn infuriated some fans and saddened others, but hardly diminished his fame. The silence fueled crazy rumors, perhaps none crazier than the one about Thomas Pynchon, another literary recluse, actually being . . . guess who.

So who, then, was J.D. Salinger? Kenneth Slawenski's new biography offers perhaps the best chance we have to get behind the myth and find the man. The creator of Dead Caulfields.com, an online trove of Salinger intel, Slawenski is a fan, not a professional biographer. "J.D. Salinger: A Life" is as earnest as it gets, exuding a whiff of the cultlike devotion that is typical of Salinger devotees: Slawenski writes more as a custodian of Salinger's life story than as a detached observer. Slawenski's attention to publishing minutiae can be exhausting, as can his lengthy plot summaries. Still, his book's range and original research provide an exacting road map to the contours of Salinger's life.

Jerome David Salinger grew up in an upper-middle-class Jewish family on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Like Holden, the young Salinger went to a prep school. (All of Salinger's work has a prep sheen - oxford button-downs are essential kit.) Some of Slawenski's best sections track Salinger's harrowing experience in World War II. An intelligence officer, Salinger survived the D-Day landings and fought in some of the Western Front's most brutal conditions. Salinger wrote when he could, publishing stories in The Saturday Evening Post and Collier's. He survived the war but was forever changed: "The sufferings that Salinger endured are essential to understanding the depth of his later works," Slawenski observes.

After the war, Salinger began his famous association with The New Yorker, which published much of his short fiction. Salinger only obliquely alluded to his psychic wounds in enigmatic stories like "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." Readers were in for a shock - what is the obscure trauma that drives Seymour Glass to blow his brains out at the end? Along with John Updike and John Cheever, Salinger became one of The New Yorker's signature writers, infusing his stories with befuddling Zen Buddhist precepts. The late '40s and early '50s were Salinger's high-water mark - "The Catcher in the Rye" made him famous and financially secure, and his shorter fiction about the Glass family and its precious, otherworldly brood won him even more fans. But as his renown peaked, Salinger began his retreat from public life. He decamped from New York in 1953 to a small town in New Hampshire, where he lived until his death. Thrice married, Salinger had two children, though his work habits - he spent long spells in a custom-built writing bunker - took an inevitable toll on his family life.

Some have suggested that the withdrawal was a clever ploy to manipulate the public and stoke sales. Slawenski sees no such conspiracy. Salinger was too sensitive for this world; he survived the brutality of war but could not endure the demands of modern authorship. And, in the end, his embrace of Eastern teachings consumed him. Writing became a form of prayer - a deeply inward act performed for no audience. Salinger put up a "Do Not Disturb" sign to the world, but the public never stopped banging on the door.

J.D. SALINGER: A Life, by Kenneth Slawenski. Random House, 450 pp, $27.

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