Reel Life: Salinger, a Film by Shane Salerno

Review by Jonathan Rocks

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salingerAfter Norman Mailer’s debut novel, The Naked and the Dead, was met with instant commercial and critical success, the author is rumored to have said, “I think the book might be better than I am.”

Though never expected, fear of overwhelming success is a very real and daunting prospect for any writer. By publishing a novel, an author voluntarily relinquishes sole ownership of their story. As readers interpret and analyze a book, the author’s words can take on a life of their own—a life the author may never had imagined. Such was the case with author J.D. Salinger’s first (and only) novel, The Catcher in the Rye.

Following the unparalleled success of his debut novel, Salinger found himself thrust into the spotlight as one of the earliest of the post-WWII generation of writers as celebrities. As contemporaries such as Norman Mailer and Truman Capote relished the notoriety their writing afforded them, Salinger wanted no part of it. Then, as the generally accepted story goes, Salinger retreated to a private estate in Cornish, New Hampshire. Here, he would live the rest of his days in fiercely guarded privacy until his death in 2010. And, though stories of his preference for solitude are not exactly untrue, many of the embellishments that painted the author as the literary equivalent to Howard Hughes have proven to be apocryphal.

In the documentary film Salinger, director Shane Salerno attempts to parse the details of the author’s rise in the literary world and his voluntary exile from public eye. Interviews with contemporaries and friends provide a small amount of context for Salinger’s early days as a hungry writer trying to get published in New York City. Rare photos also give a glimpse of Salinger’s time serving in World War II, one of which even purports to show him working on an early draft of Catcher in the Rye in the field. Whether or not that is true, many of the images presented do present a side of Salinger that has rarely been seen before. However, both the interviews and photos provide little more than a circumstantial sketch of Salinger’s life. Viewers are left with a slightly better understanding of the author’s roots, but little confirmation of the theories the film presented because, not surprisingly, Salinger had always been a relatively private guy.

Arguably the most interesting part of Salinger’s story is the fact that Catcher in the Rye has, on several occasions, been a sort of accomplice to murder. Holden Caulfield, the angst-ridden protagonist of the novel, resonated with an entire generation of readers during the 1960s and 70s. However, he also connected with many troubled and disaffected readers who would take this link to unfortunate lengths. Three high-profile murderers aligned themselves with the main character of Catcher in the Rye, the most infamous of which was Mark David Chapman, who shot and killed John Lennon. Oddly, the filmmakers spend very little time on this tragic pop culture phenomenon, especially as it may have been largely responsible for Salinger’s continued aversion to the public.

One thing is clear–the stories of Salinger’s hermetic lifestyle seem to have been exaggerated. Though certainly not a public figure, the life Salinger led in Cornish is one most people would consider perfectly normal. And this is where Salerno’s film is, in a way, just like the droves of fans that expected more from JD Salinger than just a man trying to live his life. The filmmakers seem somewhat disappointed that the life Salinger led in Cornish was, by all measures, normal. Known by neighbors as Jerry, he regularly ventured into town to the post office and grocery store, and even enjoyed the annual town fair. He was, perhaps, a curmudgeon. But, by no means does the truth of his lifestyle match up to the rumors.

If there was to be a bombshell revelation in the film, it would most certainly be that (spoiler alert) Salinger never stopped writing. He wrote nearly every day during the years he spent in Cornish. His experience with literary success left him unimpressed with the allure of fame, but not with the necessary release he could only get by committing words to the page. In what the filmmakers would have liked to be the bombshell moment of the film, we learn that Salinger left explicit directions for how and when to publish this treasure trove work after his death. However, news of the planned publication broke prior to the film’s release. So, by the time the film crescendos with the details of his future publications, it is a bit of a let down. But then again, the whole film has a feeling of let down, as is often the case when one embarks on a search for a legend and finds only a man.

Salinger is an interesting documentary, especially for those with only a passing knowledge of the author’s life. And while the film doesn’t quite draw back the shades on a life spent in private, perhaps that is for the best. It’s enough that writers choose to bare their heart and soul on the page for their readers. The words and characters Salinger left behind offer infinitely more insight into who the author was that any interview in a documentary could. To force an author to explain and answer for what they have written takes away the greatest gift a reader is given, the chance for a unique, subjective and possibly transformative understanding of a piece of fiction.

Still, this film proves that people still want answers. To that, one need only recall what Holden Caulfield said about people—“they’re always ruining things for you.”

Watch the trailer for Salinger.

Note: Reel Life is a recurring Hippocampus column that reviews old and new documentaries.

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