Michiko Kakutani, the feared-revered-reviled book critic of The New York Times, is the first to review Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno. The book — published September 3 — and the attendant documentary have been subject to a level of secrecy befitting the Manhattan Project. Nevertheless, The Times managed to acquire a copy from Simon & Schuster, and the much-anticipated book is the subject of today's daily review.
Kakutani rarely minces her words, and her verdict here comes early: Salinger is "revealing but often slapdash," an intriguing but not cohesive mish-mash. As she points out, Shields, author of Reality Hunger, has essentially argued that pastiche is the style for our times; it appears to not have worked fully here, resulting in a "loosey-goosey" work.
In essence, the authors posit that Salinger's wartime experience explains his decades-long sequestration in New Hampshire:
The sharp-edged portrait of Salinger that Mr. Shields and Mr. Salerno draw in this book is that of a writer whose “life was a slow-motion suicide mission” — a man who never recovered from the horrors of wartime combat and the soul-shaking sight of a Nazi death camp filled with burned and smoldering corpses. Salinger, they argue, tried to grapple with his post-traumatic stress disorder first with art and later with religion: “The war broke him as a man and made him a great artist; religion offered him postwar spiritual solace and killed his art.”
As far as Kakutani is concerned, this is a "reductive" analysis.
Perhaps a more damning criticism is that Salinger — which bears the obnoxious subtitle, “The Official Book of the Acclaimed Documentary Film,” — allegedly "draws heavily" on past books on Salinger, suggesting that the forthcoming book and documentary are less original than Salerno has tried to portray:
Although Mr. Salerno has done an energetic job of finding sources and persuading them to talk — he says he interviewed more than 200 people over nine years — numerous entries in this volume have been taken not from new interviews but from earlier books and articles, sometimes with and sometimes without real context.
This, Kakutani, says, sometimes leads to "sloppy scholarship" on the authors' part, as when they allege that Salinger was born with only one testicle. Then there's their revelation that Salinger left five books that remain to be published. They do not, however, satisfy true paranoids by honoring the simmering suggestion that Salinger is really Thomas Pynchon (or vice versa, depending, I suppose, on whom you like better).
Of course, just because the book is gossipy, messy and full of speculation does not mean that people won't buy it. In fact, the very opposite may be true.