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shane salerno's

Shane Salerno

reviewed by


Nick Catalano is a TV writer/producer and Professor of Literature and Music at Pace University. He reviews books and music for several journals and is the author of Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter, New York Nights: Performing, Producing and Writing in Gotham and A New Yorker at Sea. Nick’s reviews are available at

For anyone who has spent decades perusing the periodic news features written about J.D. Salinger, Shane Salerno’s new documentary film on the writer’s life will provide a surprising exegesis. The wholeness of the film superintends the journalistic history accumulated through the years and a different picture of the man and his work emerges -- more complete and more comprehensive. The scandalous or disturbing impressions of the secretive author that have arisen due to abortive incursions into his life and then reported in the press seem to fade as this film develops. This experience recalls the Aristotelian comparison of fiction to factual chronicling that I examined in my last A & O piece (cf. Vol. 12, No. 4).

Several themes develop in the film and with them come some answers to celebrated questions. Why, thousands have inquired, did Salinger behave so erratically and cryptically? The answer develops steadily as the expertly edited film traces the life of the controversial author.

Salinger’s involvement in WWII is well-known, but the shocking particulars of 299 days in combat beginning with his D-Day landing on Utah beach are eye-opening. Whole battalions are reduced to ashes in the days following the landing. After this debacle, he finds himself in the middle of the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, less publicized than other struggles, but the scene of 33,000 American casualties. Salinger writes, “I dig my fox holes down to a cowardly depth . . . am scared stiff constantly.” His 12th Regiment of the 4th Infantry division is being steadily decimated; then comes the murderous Battle of the Bulge. By April of 1945, the German surrender is imminent but Sgt. Salinger soon stumbles upon the insanity of Dachau. After enduring the uncanny apparitions there, he suffers a nervous breakdown and is hospitalized in Nuremburg and treated for “combat stress reaction.” If there was ever a euphemism for war-time mental destruction, this is it.

All of these tortures are verified in the film in emotional interview appearances by Sgt David Roderick and buddy Werner Kleeman who fought alongside Salinger. But interestingly, Kleeman also adds his observances of a resolute Salinger writing in foxholes during Nazi attacks and also protecting his confidentiality by forging the signature of a censoring officer-- early evidence of his writing ambition, determination and his mania for privacy . Accompanying these accounts, there is a telling first-time published photograph of Sgt. Salinger holding manuscripts of Holden Caulfield’s speeches written during these deadly battles.

As the film documents the terrible experiences Salinger endured during the war, it becomes much easier to understand how his combat torture could produce extended psychological damage and how it shaped his writing (he publishes I’m Crazy, narrated by Holden Caulfield in Collier’s magazine in December of 1945). The film’s lengthy chronicling of this horrific chapter in his life also sheds light on the themes of two of his later short story masterpieces: A Perfect Day for Bananafish and For Esmé —with Love and Squalor. Biographer David Shields states that Salinger’s war experiences permeate the entire corpus of his writing. “The war is the ghost in the machine of all the stories.”

Other questions that have long been asked are deliberated in the film. Why is his prose preoccupied with themes of adolescent alienation? (“I almost always write about young people” he once said). Why does he fail at three marriages and other relationships and always with much younger women? And why did he so tenaciously pursue isolation and reclusivity? The film provides more answers to these questions than most of the aforementioned journalism ever has by connecting, in strategic sequences, his personality traits, his romantic pursuits, his retreat from publicity and his aesthetic focus.

The documentary allusions to Salinger’s early publishing life (he published The Young Folks and other stories at age 21 in Whit Burnett’s Story magazine) reveal the innocence and childlike imagination of an individual out of a Wordsworth ode. (Mr. Salinger’s work deals with innocence and starts with innocence . . . he has a loving heart” – Eudora Welty). This preoccupation with innocence and its loss are subsequently the major focuses of Holden Caulfield and Seymour Glass. Joyce Maynard, a writer who lived with Salinger when she was very young, says “he was indulging in a fantasy of innocence.” Others go further suggesting that he writes of the Caulfields and Glasses as if he is living his descriptions of those lives himself.

Director Salerno delivers an extended account of Jerry Salinger’s love for Oona O’Neill only to have his heart broken when the 18-year-old debutante marries 54 year old Charley Chaplin. This is the first romance with a young woman but it is followed by many more. The older he gets the younger do his companions become. When he meets Joyce Miller he is 31 and she is 14; when he meets Clare Douglas he is 34 and she is 19. Salinger intimates that his attraction to these young girls is principally motivated by his continuing search for innocence. The absence of sexual pursuit is notable. Indeed, he seems to be indulging in an idealized form of courtly love with Joyce Miller. It is she who initiates the first physical contact by kissing him in a cab. Swiftly, after their first sexual experience his attraction fades. Soon, because of some plane cancellations, she rejoices because it means they can spend the next days together, but he quickly withdraws. The fact that she will intrude on his private writing time is unthinkable. “My work comes first with me,” he later writes to her. This strict adherence to writing over liaisons continues his whole life.’

The film skillfully juxtaposes his relationship problems with his extraordinary writing discipline and obsession for perfection. We see his outrage at William Maxwell, a New Yorker editor, who mistakenly inserts a comma into one of his published stories. We watch him destroy his lifelong friendship with A.E. Hotchner because the latter’s fellow Cosmopolitan editors decided to change the title of his story Scratchy Needle on a Phonograph Record to Blue Melody.

These violations of his craft lead to more instances of mistrust and, after the gigantic publicity he receives upon publication of The Catcher in the Rye (1951), he becomes aghast at the loss of his privacy, the betrayal of editors, publishers and movie producers (Sam Goldwyn destroys Jerry’s Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut remaking it as the fiasco My Foolish Heart) and the intrusion of the world into his orb of innocence and idealism. As we watch him storm out of a press reception after Catcher is published and abruptly head for New Hampshire and a long life of solitude, our sympathy for his struggle that the film has engendered intensifies.

The film also provides opportunity for some revisionist history. Years of clichéd reports of his eccentric reclusivity evaporate when we view accounts of Salinger in New York as a young writer playing poker with the guys, networking with editors and publishers at Chumley’s and hanging out at The Blue Angel. Later, during his life in New Hampshire, he attends countless fairs, parties and receptions, is described by the whole town as a sociable, amenable guy whom they truly like. His connection to New York is constant and we see him in his 70s driving down to Gotham to visit with literary friends at the Algonquin Hotel. So much for the image of him as an eremite.

His humanity comes across the screen as we watch accounts of his ego at work (Hotchner describing his sense of self-importance), his pride of accomplishment (he makes an issue of telling Jean Miller that he has published in The New Yorker), and occasional snobbishness (he derides Joyce Maynard’s publications). Conversely, he is embarrassed when fans constantly invade his New Hampshire residence seeking out the author of Catcher who they are convinced will solve all of their social and psychological problems. “I am a writer of fiction . . . I am not a counselor” he states with a prescient sense of himself.

We are always aware that these scenes, interviews, reconstructions, musical accompaniments, edits and research are commandeered by a veteran film maker. Shane Salerno is a screenwriter, producer, director and NYT bestselling author. His credits include Armageddon, Savages, the forthcoming Avatar 4 (with James Cameron) and a host of TV shows.

The most intriguing question that scribes, fans, gossip writers and most of the world have asked is: Did Salinger create any more writing magic in his long years in hiding? Salerno answers with resounding affirmation and carefully lists specific titles of works still to come with descriptions of their contents at the end of the film. He provides impressive substantiation that Salinger wrote prolifically and powerfully in New Hampshire on subjects such as his work in counter-intelligence after the war, his first marriage to Sylvia, and his interest in Vedanta (a Hindu synonym for the Upanishads). Remarkably, he indicates that we will hear (between 2015 and 2020) once again the voices of Seymour Glass and Holden Caulfield.

The goal of Vedanta is for the seeker to have the direct expe¬ri¬ence of his or her true nature, and it is held that each and every one of us is qual¬i¬fied to have that high¬est illu¬mi¬na¬tion, if we are will¬ing to put forth sin¬cere and intense effort.


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Perceptive, informative and intelligent review. Thanks. B. Mindich

By Nick Catalano:
The Case for Da Vinci's Demons


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