Salinger: a sensationalized doc and its secretive subject

I finally got round to watching Shane Salerno’s Salinger documentary, more than a year after its theatrical release—although as good a time as any, given that J.D. Salinger’s posthumous works are reportedly due to start appearing in 2015. Salinger would have hated Salerno’s film, and not just because it deals with aspects of a private life that Salinger took great pains to keep hidden. Salerno (a screenwriter whose distinguished credits include Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem) also resorts to the very sort of Hollywood histrionics that The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield found exasperating and—of course—“phony.”

Faced with just a handful of Salinger photographs and a few scraps of silent film and video—never mind a lack of any recorded Salinger interviews—Salerno does his damnedest to tart up the movie with dramatic imagery, an overwrought soundtrack score and a slew of interview fragments of impressive breadth but varying interest. (Do we really care what Martin Sheen thinks of Catcher in the Rye?) I don’t know what is more annoying: the silly filler scenes of a tall, dark, chain-smoking figure tapping away on a manual typewriter; or Salerno’s showy splicing together of two Joyce Maynard interviews, to the point where Maynard begins a sentence in one of them and finishes it in the other.

Salerno takes the mosaic approach to editing, using tiny shards that provide bright, trite sound bites but very little context—replete with the obligatory shots of interviewees breaking into tears that are used here shamelessly for effect. The film reaches its nadir in a lurid sequence about John Lennon assassin Mark David Chapman, who claimed he killed Lennon under the influence of Catcher in the Rye. There is nothing in Salinger’s novel that exhorts unhappy young people to murder celebrities, any more than there are messages in The Beatles’ White Album to do the same—unless, of course, you’re a psychotic like Chapman or Charles Manson. But what’s offensive isn’t that Salerno includes this questionable evidence of Catcher’s powerful influence, it’s that he makes so much of it.

So, not a great film—just a step above an A&E Biography—and not especially revelatory to anyone who is a dedicated Salinger fan. On the other hand, if you can tolerate its inane sensationalism, it’s not a bad introduction to the man and the legend that has grown up around him. It should be noted, too, that this documentary is a companion piece to a biography by David Shields and Salerno that I have not read but which presumably has more depth and context.

The film’s one significant reveal comes right at the end: a list of previously unpublished Salinger works allegedly to be released starting sometime next year. It’s long been known that Salinger continued writing after he stopped publishing, in 1965—Maynard and his daughter Margaret Salinger both mention his stash of manuscripts in their memoirs. Now, finally, we’ll get to read that writing. And the thought of it fills me with dread.

That’s because Salinger’s last published story, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” is one of the worst things ever written by a major author.

Even as a kid, reading Salinger for the first time, I sensed that he was going off the rails with his penultimate published story, the prolix, sprawling “Seymour: An Introduction.” That could, however, be put down to the narrator, Buddy Glass, the younger brother and chief hagiographer of the saintly poet, mystic, genius and suicide Seymour Glass. In Salinger’s previous Seymour tale, the brilliant “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” the character was still of this earth—though definitely strange and troubled. By the time of “Seymour: An Introduction,” the most extensive and detailed of the Glass Family stories, he was on his way to becoming some kind of avatar, Krishna in the body of a quiz-show whiz kid. But perhaps that was just the excessive hero-worship of Buddy, who sounds very much like the Salinger of that time, a cranky lone wolf writing increasingly inward and knotty prose in a concrete bunker in the backwoods of New Hampshire. (Actually, if memory serves, Salinger wrote at least some of the story in the New Yorker offices.)

With “Hapworth 16, 1924,” however, Buddy is no longer the mediator and for the first time we get an extensive piece of writing by the great Seymour himself. It’s a novella-length letter, written at summer camp when Seymour is seven years old, and I don’t know where to begin to describe its awfulness. It’s astounding that the writer who created Holden Caulfield, possibly literature’s most identified-with teenager, could have gone on to conceive a child genius who is so insufferably precious, gratingly logorrheic, obnoxiously (and sexually) precocious, and completely and utterly unconvincing as this one. After all of Buddy’s worshipful build-up, the boy that emerges in the letter is a monstrosity—or would be, if you could actually believe in him. By the time Seymour ends the letter with a massive list of books he wants his parents to have sent to him for summer reading or re-reading—starting with the complete works of Tolstoy, and including all of Proust, in French—you’re convinced the whole story is some colossal bad joke. If Salinger had wanted to burn his boats before ceasing to publish, he certainly succeeded.

So I cringe at the news that among the posthumous Salinger publications will be five new Glass stories. If they continue along the line of “Hapworth,” they will be dire indeed. However, considering that “Hapworth” has never appeared in book form and—until the internet—only existed in a back-issue of The New Yorker (June 19, 1965), it’s possible Salinger regretted it himself. I like to think that in his meta-fictional world, he might excuse it as a counterfeit—the product of an increasingly deranged Buddy Glass, hell-bent on proving his brother’s superhuman intellect and supernatural powers. (Buddy, in an opening note, claims to have transcribed the letter and also appears in the story as a slightly less impressive prodigy—a preschooler absorbed in reading Charlotte Brontë’s Villette.) This artistic misstep could be dismissed as an embarrassing bit of Apocrypha in the Glass Family Gospel. It would be lovely if Salinger had turned back and continued along the lines of “Raise High” and its predecessors, “Franny” and “Zooey.” Like so many Salinger fans, I can read those stories over and over. I have to hold my nose before dipping back into “Hapworth.”

The posthumous works I’m most eager to read are the ones stemming from Salinger’s shattering Second World War experiences. There is apparently a novella based on his stint as a counterintelligence agent in Germany immediately after the war, as well as a novel inspired by his brief first marriage to Sylvia Welter, the young German he met there. These will be the first substantial works, apart from Nine Stories’ “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor,” in which Salinger draws on his time serving in Europe.

The rest of the posthumous trove is pretty much what we imagined Salinger might be writing: apart from completing the Glass chronicles, it seems he revisited and reworked his early Holden Caulfield stories, and also wrote a guide to Vedanta, the Hindu philosophy whose influence permeates his later Glass works and probably inspired the author’s monk-like existence post-Catcher. (Whatever his motives, I’ve always admired his stubborn refusal to play the fame game.) There seem to be few surprises in store as far as content is concerned; it’s only the quality that remains a nail-biting mystery. But among his final directives, Salinger did make sure that there’s one thing we’ll never see. Though he couldn’t prevent cheesy documentaries like Salerno’s, he did reiterate that The Catcher in the Rye can never be made into a movie. So there.

Photo: J.D. Salinger’s first published book and his last… so far.

© 2014 Martin Morrow


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