The new biography of J.D. Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno is a deeply sad book.
Salinger begins with an astonishing portrait of the artist during WWII. He was attached to Fourth Division, which suffered some of the worst casualties in the war. He arrived on Utah Beach on D-Day, fought in the flooded hedgerows of Normandy, endured the strange hell of the Hürtgen Forest and survived the Battle of the Bulge. Incredibly, Salinger carried with him an early draft of Catcher in the Rye and worked on it whenever he could.
Salinger was in the Counter Intelligence Corps, and his job was to gather intel, make arrests and interrogate prisoners and civilians. He wasn't in combat with the regular infantrymen, but a foxhole is a foxhole.
The worst thing Salinger saw came at the very end of the war, when he was sent to Kaufering Lager IV, a sub-camp of Dachau, where the sick and injured were interred. Before the Nazis fled, they herded all the prisoners into ramshackle barracks and torched the buildings. It was a scene for which Salinger was completely unprepared.
Robert Azburg, one of the book's many advisors, describes what it was like: "For a soldier like Salinger walking into a camp, there was a stillness to it and a craziness to it. You were caught off guard. You weren't psyched for battle. These weren't liberations in the sense of busting down the gates or anything like that. The war was over; you could let down your guard a little. These soldiers basically walked into these horrific situations. Unguarded and unsuspecting, they were walking into an open place. This was like opening up, and falling into, a graveyard."
Salinger wasn't some grunt following orders. As a CIC guy, his job was to understand what happened and why, and then pass that information up the chain of command. He couldn't ignore the madness. He had to get to the bottom of it, and how the hell do you do that? How do you process the insanity of a place like Kaufering IV? It's no wonder that he ended up having a nervous breakdown shortly afterward.
Salinger is an oral history composed by hundreds of people the authors interviewed or sourced. It's an interesting approach, and an effective one. Let the military people comment on Salinger's wartime years, the publishing people speak about Salinger the writer, etc. Shields and Salerno craft the message they want by shaping and directing the conversation. It's manipulative, but good art usually is. It makes sense that the book is paired with a documentary, because it reads like one. There's a lot of overlap in the book, which is by design, but the conclusions Shields and Salerno draw get repeated over and over again, and that weakens them.
It's tempting to view Salinger's retreat from the world through the lens of his wartime experiences. But Salinger didn't retreat. He didn't hole up and hide out. He simply moved his operations to a remote location and continued to engage the world with increasing contempt and disdain. Over time, his dispatches became increasingly one-sided: The messages came out on his terms, according to his schedule. His most consistent message was, "No"—unless you happened to be a very young girl of a certain type. Then the message was quite different. That message was "Come to me."
Some of them came. Some of them stayed, at least for a little while. When they left (or were asked to leave), Salinger would find a new one. Even though he kept getting older, they stayed the same age. In spite of Salinger's so-called renunciation of literary fame, there's no question he used it to gain access to these young women. It's creepy. It's reprehensible. But, most of all, it's sad.
Because Salinger decided to stop publishing his work, the story of Salinger the artist has no end. It's been interrupted. Salinger helps us understand why that's so, but it doesn't change the terms of the interruption. If Salinger's decision not to publish is like a suicide, then Shields and Salerno's massive biography is the note. A suicide note can illuminate, but it can never explain. Until we get our hands on the material Salinger was working on all those years in the woods, the story is incomplete. After reading Salinger, when that day comes I'll greet it with far less fanfare.