J.D. Salinger is dead, and therefore unable to prevent Shane Salerno from making a documentary film about him. The new film is being accompanied by the publication of a biography co-authored by the director and David Shields.
Cornel Bonca, in the LA Review of Books, tells us about both the move and the book, and assures us that “J.D. Salinger would have hated every single word and frame in both of them. Hated them, felt enraged, betrayed, flayed by them.”
The big news, though, is that the book spills the beans about the contents of the literary legacy that the self-exiled and reclusive author had been working on in secret for over half a century.
Salinger left behind five complete manuscripts of mostly new material, and there are plans afoot to publish them in book form, one a year, starting in 2015. The Salinger estate has not confirmed anything, but Shields and Salerno assure us that the â€œinformation was provided, documented, and verified by two independent and separate sources.â€ It gives one pause that these sources refuse to identify themselves â€” the book and film openly identify 99 percent of the sources of the rest of their material â€” but the news is such a bombshell that Shieldsâ€™s and Salernoâ€™s reputations clearly ride on it: if these books donâ€™t see the light of day, Shields and Salerno will look like Geraldo Rivera opening up Al Caponeâ€™s vault. Assuming theyâ€™re on the level, though, this is the biggest literary â€œgetâ€ of the American 21st century. The books include a World War II novel featuring Sergeant X from â€œFrom Esme,â€ the most intriguing character outside Holden and the Glass family that Salinger ever created. It includes a novella, in diary form, written by a World War II counterintelligence officer â€” Salingerâ€™s job during the war â€” â€œculminating in the Holocaust.â€ Given Salingerâ€™s war experience and his painstaking writing process, these two works could conceivably add up to a contribution to American World War II literature on a par with the work of Mailer, Jones, Heller, and Pynchon. A third manuscript is, weâ€™re told, a â€œmanual of Vedanta,â€ a book explaining Vedanta Hinduism (and presumably, its relation to Salingerâ€™s work), â€œwith short stories, almost fables, woven into the text.â€ Finally, there are two compilations, one entitled The Family Glass, gathering all the published Glass stories together with five new stories about Seymour, the last of which â€œdeals with Seymourâ€™s life after death.â€ Given that once Salinger got going on the Glasses, his â€œstoriesâ€ inevitably metastasized into novellas, this book is likely to be a real tome, and might conceivably be the greatest contribution Salinger makes to American letters, dealing as it must, with the question of how to live a genuine spiritual life in a postwar, post-Holocaust world. Then thereâ€™s the final book, which Shields and Salerno describe as â€œa complete history of the Caulfield family,â€ gathering Catcher, six previously published (and I would imagine, wholly rewritten) Caulfield stories written in the early-to-mid 1940s, as well as new stories featuring, presumably, Holden, Phoebe, Allie, and D.B. Caulfield. Five new Salinger books! Doubtless, they will make us entirely reconceive Salingerâ€™s current oeuvre. If the books are even close in quality to Catcher or Franny & Zooey, they might reroute the course of late 20th-century American literature.