The only clear takeaway from Salinger is that he was totally right to get the hell out of Dodge. If this is what the bright hot sun of public attention yields, this mishmash of people who sorta kinda knew him making hyperbolic claims, I sympathize with his impulse to disappear. We are all better off living in dark little farmhouses than in movies that include, I kid you not, reenactments where hunky actors bearing very little resemblance to oneself carry heavy-looking logs up hills. Every once in a while Salinger seems to display some faint trace of self-awareness about its bombast — as when it interviews one nut who went to Salinger seeking spiritual guidance and was told the truth, i.e., “I’m a fiction writer, go back to your family.” But there is something at once lurid and way too innocent about this film, and its accompanying book.
Reams have been written already about what a terribly gossipy and craven genre biography is. There are good ones, but most of the time the biographer really has to sift through the ugly matter of a person’s life. Salinger lacks even the limited intellectual aspiration biographers can usually claim. Both book and film read more like celebrations than investigations. And though celebration has its place, there’s much less excuse for the kind of prurient rubbernecking biographical research necessarily involves when you have no interest — and no one involved in these Salinger projects has any interest — in illuminating the work with this information. If all you care about in biography is enhancing and protecting celebrity status, you’re doomed to be little more than a paparazzo-in-text.
You may leave the theater or the biography having learned something new about the man — that he believed himself to have a telepathic connection with his first wife, say, or that he wore dark blue coveralls to write — but the details don’t amount to a real psychological portrait. They are trivial details, and ones which the filmmaker-biographers confusingly decline to connect to the whole. That makes them ripe for bullet points though, and obviates your need to see the entire movie:
1. Salinger’s affair with the beatutiful debutante Oona O’Neill (later Chaplin) left him brokenhearted. The film doesn’t outright call her a heartless bitch for marrying another kind of celebrity, but it cuts awfully close to that thesis.
2. Based on precious little evidence, the film claims that Salinger’s first wife, a woman named Sylvia Welter, was a Nazi. The precise nature of her ties to the Party are left vague, likely because, as one discovers in the accompanying book, there is no real evidence of such ties beyond some hearsay from a Salinger associate and a scattered university enrollment history.
3. Salinger evidently had, in the testicular sense, a Franny but not a Zooey. (Credit for that way of putting it goes to Flavorpill Literary Editor Jason Diamond.) Salerno and Shields get real sappy about this, and suggest it gave Salinger a guiding sense of inadequacy. Perhaps. Perhaps also this really could not matter less as an item of journalistic/literary/scholarly analysis, because one intellect does not emerge directly from one’s crotch. Mercifully, this “revelation” is not discussed in the film.
4. This is more of something we knew already, but the documentary and book elaborate: Salinger was a big creep when it came to women, generally targeting the young and credulous and then shoving them out the door the moment it turns out they don’t satisfy his pedestalicious read on them. One, the inspiration for Esmé in the beautiful short story “For Esmé, With Love and Squalor,” he literally put on a plane the second after he slept with her. Not terribly charming, but also a not-unfamiliar story to literary women all over Brooklyn and environs.
5. Salinger had a giant vault which contained all sorts of manuscripts he intended to publish. A couple of them are about characters who already populate these stories: the Caulfield and Glass families. One is about a branch of Hinduism and basically no one will read it. Another couple are what sound like thinly veiled accounts of Salinger’s wartime experiences, including his marriage to Sylvia. In short: Woooooof.
There, I have now saved you $13.50.
Of these items, only the last appears to have been carefully verified. The rest is all straight-up gossip. It’s possible that every documentary is ultimately more of a profile of its maker than its subject. But that’s more true of Salinger than of the average case. It’s clear that Shane Salerno and David Shields are giant fans of J.D. Salinger, but fandom doesn’t scholarship make. And frankly, like Salinger, I think he was better off alone than with fans like these.