J.D. Salinger: A Life by Kenneth Slawenski

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J.D. Salinger: A Life
464 pages; Random House
When J.D. Salinger died in January 2010, readers wondered whether, after 45 years, the author's silence would finally be broken. Did he leave behind a novel that approached the perfection of The Catcher in the Rye? Kenneth Slawenski's exhaustively researched, affectionate biography, J.D. Salinger: A Life (Random House), should partially satisfy curiosity about the writer, although it finds neither bombshell nor masterpiece. Instead, drawing on never-before-published letters, fiction, and photographs, Slawenski, creator of the authoritative Web site deadcaulfields.com, weaves literary criticism with the author's personal history. Describing Salinger's privileged childhood, Slawenski includes plenty of what Holden Caulfield would have derided as "David Copperfield kind of crap." But Slawenski sheds light on Salinger's romances, including the one with the much-younger writer Joyce Maynard. He also chronicles the author's misbegotten relationship with Eugene O'Neill's teenage daughter, Oona, and how he reconciled their breakup (she left him to marry Charlie Chaplin) in his fiction. Another enlightening section reconstructs Salinger's service in World War II—he wrote while fighting on the front line—and his brief encounter with Ernest Hemingway. While Slawenski races through Salinger's final decades, his definitive biography argues that it's fiction, even more than fact, that reveals the most about a generation's patron saint of alienation.
— Michael Solomon