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J.D. Salinger, We Hardly Knew Ya…

Before the Beatniks drew national attention, before Elvis, before a thousand kids who had never met a black person began listening to the blues, before John, Paul, George and Ringo; before Dylan, before hippies, before the 1968 riots in Paris, before punk rock, and before people realized that there was a lot of money to be made off youthful rebellion, there was J.D. Salinger.

Salinger might not be the greatest American fiction writer of the 20th century, but there is plenty of evidence that says he’s the most important. He may or may not have written the great American novel, he created characters that will live on for decades to come, and he has a hold on artists of all kinds, an allure that both attracts readers and bleeds into contemporary literature.

For all we know, J.D. Salinger didn’t care about this unfaltering legacy, and if he could have gone on living another 200 years, he would probably still be hiding out in his fortress in Cornish, New Hampshire, hoping we’d all just leave him alone.

But since God, nature, or whatever, works in mysterious ways, Salinger is no longer of this Earth, and that is why Kenneth Slawenski’s biography, J.D. Salinger: A Life, is one of the most anticipated biographies of the year.  Salinger is back in the spotlight, but this time he can’t object.

Attempting to piece together the life of a man who dropped out of sight for 40 years –at the height of his popularity and influence—is hardly a task to be envied; yet, it reads like a labor of love, and Slawenski does everything short of spying on Salinger.  His book is part biography, part literary criticism, and succeeds in connecting Salinger’s work to his own life, giving us as good of picture as we may ever get; and makes the picture a bit more clear.

For years, Salinger lived under the impression that both of his parents were Jewish, but he eventually came to find out that his mother was of Irish-Catholic descent. Although this has been a source of controversy and discussion among Salinger aficionados for years, Slawenski notes that as Sol Salinger’s social status advanced, he began to turn his back on his Jewish background.  Similarly, Holden Caulfield’s obsession with all this is “phony,” suggests that perhaps Salinger’s works were filled with veiled autobiographical references.

One of the book’s most interesting stories is about Salinger’s time spent in Austria, right before World War II.  Salinger, living with a Jewish family, falls in love with his host family’s daughter — only to lose her in the chaos that would claim millions in the coming years.  Salinger grieved the loss of his Austrian family, and his first love, and would later attempt to retell that story in “A Girl I knew.”

Slawenski also mentions an unpublished, proto-Inglorious Basterds story about a Frenchman who kidnaps Adolf Hitler.  There was also the writer’s first hand experience with the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis, written during his time with a division that helped liberate victims in Dachau.  Salinger never talked much about this time in his life, but the effects on his writing must have been immeasurable.

Telling the tale of Salinger by recounting his formative years, his rise and eventually his disappearance from the public eye; Slawenski doesn’t rely on hearsay, and has done a good job at playing detective. Slawenski doesn’t rewrite history, but J.D. Salinger: A Life is an honest account of a writer who really didn’t want to be worshiped or praised.  Slawenski is respectful of Salinger’s wishes, and delivers a worthy biography.

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