This volume, “J. D. Salinger: A Life,” which draws liberally from Salinger’s letters and a memoir by his daughter, Margaret, is flawed by a tendency to assume direct correspondences between the author’s life and work. And it retraces a lot of ground covered in earlier books by Ian Hamilton and Paul Alexander. Still, it does so without the sort of condescending and at times voyeuristic speculation that hobbled those earlier biographies, and it does an evocative job of tracing the evolution of Salinger’s work and thinking.
And the Sunday Book Review write-up by Jay Mcinerney:
For this reader, the great achievement of Slawenski’s biography is its evocation of the horror of Salinger’s wartime experience. Despite Salinger’s reticence, Sla wenski admirably retraces his movements and recreates the savage battles, the grueling marches and frozen bivouacs of Salinger’s war. It’s hard to think of an American writer who had more combat experience. He landed on Utah Beach on D-Day. Slawenski reports that of the 3,080 members of Salinger’s regiment who landed with him on June 6, 1944, only 1,130 survived three weeks later. Then, when the 12th Infantry Regiment tried to take the swampy, labyrinthine Hürtgen Forest, in what proved to be a huge military blunder, the statistics were even more horrific. After reinforcement, “of the original 3,080 regimental soldiers who went into Hürtgen, only 563 were left.” Salinger escaped the deadly quagmire of Hürtgen just in time to fight in the Battle of the Bulge, and shortly thereafter, in 1945, participated in the liberation of Dachau. “You could live a lifetime,” he later told his daughter, “and never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose.”
…Salinger always told friends he was still writing, and it’s possible there’s a trove of unpublished stories and novels, although readers of “Hapworth,” in which he seems to be talking to himself rather than to fans of “The Catcher in the Rye,” may wonder whether they wish to see it. “J. D. Salinger: A Life” leaves this and many other questions hanging. Though Slawenski adds to the record, Paul Alexander’s biography is, to my mind, more dramatically vivid and psychologically astute.
There will probably never be a definitive biography of Salinger, but our understanding will be modified by the actions of his executors and the release of unpublished material in the coming years. For the moment, at least, Holden’s creator might take some satisfaction in knowing the extent to which his efforts to erase his own story have succeeded.