I can remember it so well: Dressed in a suit and tie, in my car, in a hotel parking lot. I was early for my meeting, and was killing time listening to sports talk on the radio. Mike Francesca, I think it was. My cell phone's text message noise sounded, bringing inevitable news that somehow seemed shocking: J.D. Salinger was dead.
I was barely able to make it through my stupid meeting. Much wine was poured that night. I dressed all in black the next day.
That's the way it always is with me and my heroes -- their deaths hit me harder and longer than when even family members die. Maybe that's strange, I don't know, but it's the absolute and undeniable truth.
Salinger's death threw me head-long into a reading frenzy. I re-read Catcher, and Nine Stories, and Franny and Zooey, and Roof Beam and Seymour. Then I read (or re-read) a bunch of books ABOUT Salinger:
Salinger: A Biolgraphy by Paul Alexander
At Home in the World by Joyce Maynard
Salinger, Edited by Henry Anatole Grunwald
Dream Catcher by Margaret A. Salinger
J.D. Salinger, Edited by Harold Bloom
New Essays on The Catcher in the Rye, Edited by J. Salzman
J.D. Salinger by Warren French
"A Reading of Salinger's 'Teddy' " by James Bryan
It was a ton of reading, of course, but the task of it seemed to happen separately from myself. The emotion of it seemed to happen as deeply within myself as could be, as intimately as possible. It did not help me "process" the loss, or achieve "closure," or any other Dr. Phil kind of nonsense. All it did, really, was make reading Salinger's stories themselves immensely more enjoyable, because I finally realized just how deep and poignant and full of soul-rattling, life-changing epiphanies they really are.
And then last month a new Salinger biography came out, Salinger: A Life by Kenneth Slawenski. At first I was skeptical: how much new information or insight could it possibly contain? I held off buying it. However, when the reviews starting coming in, they were so overwhelmingly positive that I couldn't resist.
Let me join in that chorus of positivity for Mr. Slawenski's work. It is better than all of the rest of the books I've read on J.D.S. because he combines the best elements of both biography and critical analysis of the stories, collected and uncollected. He also adds in new and fascinating information on Salinger's life. Especially keen is his analysis of Salinger's World War II experiences and the profound impact they had on his life and fiction. But equally great are his descriptions of Salinger's days before and after the war, including tremendous insight into how these events translate, near-autobiographically, into his stories. One example is the fact that Salinger lost the hauntingly beautiful Oona O'Neill, daughter of the legenday playwright Eugene O'Neill, to an elderly but rich Charlie Chaplin. One gets the feeling that Salinger never really got over it.
Equally fascinating were Mr. Slawenski's insights into the in-fighting among the New Yorker magazine's staff members when it came to Salinger's stories. Katharine White (wife of E.B. White of The Elements of Style fame), for example, wanted to reject "Zooey" (!!!) Then-publisher William Shawn overruled her, and the edition of the magazine featuring Zooey's bathtub-birth into the world completely sold out within days. (And Franny and Zooey today is considered a classic.)
I HIGHLY recommend J.D. Salinger: A Life to any Salinger fan, certainly, or any fan of fiction in general. With many of Salinger's stories there is a subtle item or occurrence or word that carries with it tremendous meaning. If you don't know to look for it or are unaware of its nuanced meanings, you could easily miss it, and therewith, miss the entire potency of the story. Mr. Slawenski is quite skilled at uncovering those hidden gem-aspects to the stories and should be saluted for bringing them into the light.
After reading A Life, I found myself rushing back to the Salinger stories, just to see if I agreed with Mr. Slawenski's analysis or not, and I enjoyed just thinking about the stories from a different angle. Maybe you will, too.
"Buddy is engaged elsewhere for an indefinite period of time." - Seymour Glass, a Devega Bicycle if ever there was one.
You can purchase J.D. Salinger: A Life by clicking on this link or the button below.