Sarah Churchwell is not impressed with the new Salinger biography.
The latest biography, a joint project by film-maker Shane Salerno and writer David Shields, easily surpasses Slawenski’s, although this is not saying much. Its one great virtue is some impressive research: Salerno, whose lucrative day job is writing screenplays for films including Armageddon and the sequel to Avatar, is a self-proclaimed Salinger fanatic. He financed this project to the tune of $2m and spent nine years compiling information, some of it genuinely new. David Shields is a writer best known for his Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010), and together they’ve produced a book that is less a biography than the transcript of a biopic.
Salinger is described on its cover as “the official book of the acclaimed documentary film” – perhaps a trifle optimistic, given that the film had not yet appeared when the book was printed. It reads distinctly like a director’s cut, preserving all the scraps from the cutting-room floor. There is no cohesive narrative voice; the book simply cross-cuts among various talking heads, including Salerno and Shields. Gradually a bewildering, arbitrary list of names resolves into an ensemble cast, some of whom knew Salinger, more of whom didn’t; a great many of these names are not introduced to the reader for hundreds of pages, so that their relationship to Salinger is often obscure.