I mostly enjoyed Thomas Beller’s narcissistic short book, though I think it quite usatisfactory as a biography of the reclusive writer J. D. Salinger (1919-2010) for anyone not already familiar with the basic facts of Salinger’s life before the 1961 TIME magazine cover story about him. (I’d seen the 2013 speculation-indulgent and IMO padded Shane Salerno documentary before reading Beller’s book).
Beller also assumes a familiarity with the early stories published in magazines but not collected in any edition authorized by Salinger. He alludes to things in them, but does not bother to epitomize them, let alone draw conclusions about them en toto. I think that it was safe to assume that anyone reading a Salinger biography would be familiar with ‘A Catcher in the Rye,’ so that picking aspects from it to mention in relation to the author’s life illuminates more than confuses.
I also think that Beller is very good on the editing of Salinger stories at the New Yorker, especially the formative editing of his first New Yorker publications by Gustave Lobrano, as well as the better-known championing by the legendary William Shawn.
It is also good on the prep schools (McBurney and Valley Forge Military Academy), but glances over the traumas of WWII which included D-Day and being one of the first into Dachau, has nothing new or interesting to say about the Nazi bride (Sylvia) Jerry brought home to Park Avenue. Beller frequently notes and/or imagines the silence of the ham and cheese baron father, Sol[omon].
Sol’s wife took the name “Miriam,” but was Jewish neither by birth nor conversion, so that at the time of his bar-mitzvah Jerome David Salinger learned that he was not technically Jewish, as he had supposed (along with various schoolmate bullies).
Unlike Salerno, Beller treads lightly on Salinger’s predations on literate young women. Though apparently not breaking age of consent laws, Salinger operate on their edge and ruthlessly discarded his female protégés when they matured.
Since we still do not know what Salinger wrote after his last publication (19 June 1965 in the New Yorker), it seems to me that a new biography is premature. Beller avoids speculation about what Salinger wrote and withheld from publishers and readers, and did not try to pull back the curtain of secrecy about his life and any work in Cornish, New Hampshire (to which Salinger fled in 1953, following the publication of Nine Stories).
Beller visited many places Salinger had been and read the letters that Ian Hamilton tried to quote in a biography that Salinger succeeded in quashing in the sweeping 1987 case Salinger v. Random House, Inc. Beller obtained proofs of Hamilton’s book as well as an unauthorized collection of early Salinger fiction and his own Salinger book is rather too much like the one Hamilton eventually did publish: In Search of J.D. Salinger.(1988) that was more about the biographer and the difficulty of researching Salinger than about Salinger.