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'Salinger': Book answers more questions than the movie

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 20, 2013 - The J. D. Salinger story is not over, after all. When he died in 2010, at the age of 91, the famously reclusive author of “The Catcher in the Rye” left behind a decades-old question: What had he really been doing for the past 40 years? Rumors swirled about Salinger writing every day. Was he hiding unpublished masterpieces? Why so secret? The first answers are just now arriving.

A new documentary movie, “Salinger,” opens this Friday, timed to coincide with the publication of a book of the same title. The coauthors of the book, David Shields and Shane Salerno, are also co-writers for the movie, and Salerno is the director. The audience is faced with a genuine curiosity: not a movie made from a book, but the same story told by the same people two ways, onscreen for two hours and in print for 700 pages.

Both versions are fascinating — and a little too long. But for people-watchers, documentary-lovers and Salinger fans, the movie should be more than satisfying.

Both movie and book have odd structures. The movie uses a running gambit of an actor as a Salinger-figure who types and worries in an empty theater. Strange. The book uses hundreds of quotes presented as “interview answers” given to the movie-makers, including President Roosevelt’s famous statement that the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor was “a day which will live in infamy.” Strange again.

But all the key questions are answered. Will there be a sequel to “The Catcher in the Rye”? Yes and no, not as a single story, but as a combination of stories that go back to fill in the development of Holden Caulfield. Was Salinger really writing new work all those years? Yes, and five new books will be arriving in the next 5-10 years. Both the movie and the book give enticing details.

Also, why did the author hide from his fans for all those decades? That question has some tricky and surprising answers, some provided only in the book version, so I won’t dwell on all of them, either. Salinger probably caused part of that problem himself.

In “The Catcher in the Rye,” Holden Caulfield famously says, “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”

Unfortunately for Salinger, many readers took to heart the first sentence of that quote and ignored the second one. How could a first-time novelist know that his only novel would be selling 250,000 copies a year for decades and that he would be chased, nearly hunted, in public and at home for the rest of his life? Salinger, who was obsessively private, famously hated having an adoring public.

Oddly, the moviemakers could have provided additional, astonishing answers to the question of Salinger’s reclusiveness, but they choose not to. How do we know? Because they give the answers in their book version.

Having researched the story for years, Salerno and Shields have uncovered some particularly provocative material, especially about Salinger’s participation in D-Day and the aftermath, mostly unrelated to Holden Caulfield, making the documentary a genuine surprise in fascinating ways.

Besides “The Catcher in the Rye,” Salinger’s key stories, all relatively short, were “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” “For Esmé — With Love and Squalor,” and “Frannie.” All four stories feature an innocent girl, precociously wise, who is dealing with being at the brink of adulthood, which may be her own problem but more commonly, some conflicted young man’s problem, often a nervous breakdown, maybe leading to suicide.

The movie indirectly traces the issue back to a little known event in Salinger’s young adulthood. When Salinger was 21, he fell in love with Oona O’Neill, the beautiful debutante daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill. Salinger wanted to marry her, but while he went off to fight in World War II, she went off to Hollywood and fell in love with Charlie Chaplin. Salinger learned that he had been dumped by reading of the controversial marriage in the newspaper.

At the time, Chaplin was in his 50s and married O’Neill on her 18th birthday. Odd as that may sound, they were happily married for the rest of their lives. Even odder, Salinger seems to have replayed that scenario many times, but with himself as the older man, and with unhappier results. He eventually married or nearly married or more-or-less seduced a succession of teenage girls, some of them, more than 30 years younger. Maybe even stranger, in some of those cases, the relationship was almost entirely platonic — at least, until the girl herself forced the issue.

The movie makes the case clearly enough, but Salinger still seems more than a little creepy. But the moviemakers ignore an important secret that they document in their book, a secret that makes Salinger more understandable. Salinger had a physical anomaly, an undescended testicle, which happens to maybe 5 percent of male babies at birth. The condition is not painful or injurious, and does not interfere with fertility, but certainly it would be embarrassing. That one piece of information helps us understand why a man might gravitate toward younger, inexperienced women. They might not even know that he was “unusual.”

But the movie, which is a documentary, after all, leaves out that particularly significant point. Why? Possibly for a PG-13 rating?

Also left largely undeveloped in the movie is the important point, covered in the book, that Holden Caulfield became a virtual role model for disaffected American youth in the second half of the 20th century.

Salinger gave us our first post-World War II rebel without a cause, influencing several decades of young adults and contributing to the raucous era of beatniks, hippies, and civil rights protesters.

For America-watchers interested in the rise of modern rebels, from Jack Kerouac to James Dean to Sylvia Plath to Steve Jobs, J.D. Salinger’s character, Holden Caulfield, was in some ways as important, because Holden was first.

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