He’s a shared frame of literary reference, an education experience that either resulted in a kind of adolescent epiphany, or a shoulder shrug struggle which left you questioning your peers’ perspective. We’ve all been taught the rote version of J.D. Salinger — A Catcher in the Rye equals “classic,” Franny and Zooey not so much — with the rest just whims that never got fully completed before the author went rogue, and then reclusive. There have always been rumors about the man — his hatred of fame, his desire to be left alone, his confusion over how his work became so coveted, and then corrupted. In the decades before his death, the fact that he wasn’t writing became more intriguing than the overworn works being taught.
So, in some ways, it’s nice that director Shane Salerno avoids a lot of the scholastic interpretation of Salinger’s import to focus on the things we know little about, i.e. his life after the late ’50s. On the other hand, the resulting documentary feels more like a tawdry whispered rumor mill than a real insight into a complicated man. Sure, we hear from dozens of famous people, all proclaiming their devotion to the cult of Holden Caulfield while opining on how difficult it must have been to be the father of such an influential cultural figure. There’s even a few who venture outside the pages of a torn, tattered paperback. But the majority of Salinger is made up of innuendo and accusation, borderline crimes and a desire to humanize someone via dishing as much dirt as possible.
Since it’s part of a multimedia presentation on the late author’s legacy (including a book which claims there is more Salinger coming out in print in the next few years), we can understand the “gotcha,” and since he was so protective of his privacy, it makes sense that Salerno uncovers something the man might not want people to know (like his proclivity for young — very young — girls). But then he hints at the influence Salinger had over such infamous individuals as John Hinkley and Mark David Chapman… and leaves that avenue unexplored. Indeed, the biggest flaw here, aside from the fawning overindulgence toward tying every facet of his life into some other aspect of his career, is the desire to go point by point through Salinger’s story. Are his WWII experiences intriguing? Absolutely (he was part of D-Day and the liberation of Dachau). Do we need reenactments of the author smoking and working away at his typewriter. Ummm…
Salerno might have a great story to tell, but he doesn’t understand how to tell it. The real question with J. D. Salinger was his desire to disappear, to more or less leave the world hanging on this famous last words while he moved to New England and trolled for jailbait. The footage from the ’70s, eager fans camping out like Beliebers just to catch a glimpse (or a photo) of their beloved scribe is matched by later paparazzo-esque stalkings, some even managing to capture a clearly disinterested old man jumping into his car. That’s the story — why we were so enamored of what Salinger did that we would spend hours in a small New Hampshire town just to see him, or better yet, if he was still writing. That’s Salerno’s big reveal here, a twist told a hundred times over the years. In fact, there are many who won’t believe there are new Salinger books to read until one turns up on their Kindle in a few years.
Oddly enough, for a movie that attempts to be exhaustive in its approach and delivery, Salinger remains sketchy. It’s like walking into a grand epic and only getting glimpses of the scope suggested. There is a lot for fans of the author to enjoy. On the other hand, there’s very little for those looking beyond the basics, and the book deal ballyhoo.