“How many times are you not going to see the Salinger movie?”
“Every day and twice on Sunday, until it goes away.”
That was my son’s question and his father’s response. The same can be said of the book called “Salinger,” produced by the same fellow who did the documentary, Shane Salerno. The title alone should dissuade and depress any self-respecting Salinger admirer, for whose biography deserves a snappier and more memorable title than J.D. Salinger’s? Did Mr. Salerno learn nothing from his subject and master? Can anyone see or say “For Esmé With Love and Squalor” without reliving that heartbreaking story? Who can read or hear the word “bananafish” without thinking of that short story, that suicide, that whole damn Glass menagerie? You want meaningful titles? Try “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut.” What about “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters”? Imagine if “The Catcher in the Rye” were titled “Caulfield.” Not even “Holden Caulfield,” just “Caulfield.”
In a generous mood, perhaps we should thank Mr. Salerno for producing tripe, tripe that debuted at number six on The New York Times best-seller list, which must have thrilled Mr. Salerno no end. Had he approached J.D. Salinger with intellectual integrity instead of desperate sensationalism, had he interviewed people who had something to say rather than some empty-headed actors, envious authors, and a star-struck photographer who once saw a woman who once knew a man who got his mail at the same small Cornish, N.H., post office as J.D. Salinger, well, there would be a genuine temptation to explore the dynamic between the art and the artist, an artist, in this case, who was, it turns out, a man of his word as well as his words.
Holden Caulfield promised to save some kids, move to Vermont, and pretend to be deaf and dumb in order to avoid contact with all the phonies of the world. Holden Caulfield was put into a mental home; J.D. Salinger was put into a box called crazy because everyone around him was dying to be a celebrity as he ran headlong away from it, warned about it, and sued anyone who tried to bring it upon him. Vermont? New Hampshire? He was one state off.
Perhaps we should thank Mr. Salerno for reminding us to read J.D. Salinger again, which we ought to do whenever the squalor of the world outweighs the love, when one needs a defibrillation, when one forgets the exhilaration of a precisely placed comma, or three. Salinger taught young writers that there was the perfect word hiding out there in plain sight and it was worth searching for because that one coquettish word could shape or color an entire sentence, paragraph, or story. Has any writer inspired more writers to write than J.D. Salinger? Has anyone made it look so simple and so unattainable at the same time?
Sounds like Zen, you say? We won’t even get into Salinger’s early importation of Eastern thought; before Alan Watts, before Allen Ginsberg, before Robert Pirsig, before Baba Ram Dass, George Harrison, Thich Nhat Hanh, various rinpoches and sundry maharishis and your friendly neighborhood yoga teacher.
Neither of the two big take-aways from “Salinger” — movie and book — is news to any genuine Salinger follower. 1) He was writing all along; as he said, he escaped the madness in order to write more and purer, not to avoid writing. And 2) he had some flirtations and flings with younger women, or girls, as Joyce Maynard keeps telling us, over and over again, year after year. (Is her experience the collateral damage of Jerome’s career, or the cottage industry of Joyce’s?)
Serious readers of great writers know that writers expose enough of their psyches, their obsessions, their childhoods, their families, and their vulnerabilities without being hounded by Hollywood poseurs and exposed by ex-intimates, who, by the way, are among the least reliable of all human sources. Why would Mr. Salerno spend nine years (as in “Nine Stories”) rummaging through J.D. Salinger’s trash trying to turn up something salacious or scandalous if he, as Mr. Salerno swears, loves the man and his work? Why would he commit the single act that that loved one would least want him to commit?
Apparently, Mr. Salerno has inspected his own inner life as shallowly as he has Salinger’s. But that will not stop him. When your movie and your doc make money and you are shuttled around NPR channels by day and the chat show circuit by night, you quickly sign a new deal with the Weinstein boys (again) to create a feature film based on the wrongheaded speculations of your twin exploitations. Thank God Jason Robards is not around to star in “Salinger, the Movie.”
In a world filled with phonies, one man rose above the crazy fray. Damaged by war, hurt by young love, at the height of his popularity, he locked himself in a New England cabin with a typewriter and a teenage girl . . .
Speaking of movies, when you watch Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, do you fixate on the 16-year-old Mexican girl he impregnated when he was 35? Do you ruminate about his marriage to an 18-year-old girl when he was 53? Or do you just enjoy his genius?
When you read “Henderson the Rain King,” are you constantly aware of Saul Bellow’s five wives, the last of which he met when he was a 64-year-old professor and she was his 21-year-old student? Do you think the members of the committees of the Pulitzer Prize, Nobel Prize, and National Medal of Arts were focused on his personal peccadilloes?
What about John Cheever — the Chekhov of the Suburbs, the Ovid of Ossining? Does his alcoholism or repressed homosexuality or bitter depression or problematic fatherhood (take your pick) prevent you from appreciating the profundities of “The Swimmer” or “The Wapshot Chronicle”?
I have read that, at some point in both the doc and the book, Salinger apologizes to a pilgrim for not being a seer, just a person. We have to take his word for it, but it is apparent that he knew long ago where the world was headed and what it wanted from him. He knew about all the Shane Salernos who were on his trail and bound to catch him at some point.
So it’s only fitting that we give Salinger the last word here; equally fitting, I hope, is to let him speak through his alter ego, Buddy Glass, when talking about the work of his talented and dead brother in “Seymour: An Introduction.”
“It seems to me indisputably true that a good many people, the wide world over, of varying ages, cultures, natural endowments, respond with a special impetus, a zing, even, in some cases, to artists and poets who as well as having a reputation for producing great or fine art, have something garishly wrong with them as persons: a spectacular flaw in character or citizenship, a construably romantic affliction or addiction — extreme self-centeredness, marital infidelity, stone-deafness, stone-blindness, a terrible thirst, a mortally bad cough, a soft spot for prostitutes, a partiality for grand scale adultery or incest, a certified or uncertified weakness for opium or sodomy, and so on, God have mercy on the lonely bastards.”
Bruce Buschel is a writer, producer, director, and restaurateur who lives in Bridgehampton.
The book “Salinger” was co-written by David Shields.