Friday, July 25, 2014

J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist, by Thomas Beller

New Harvest, 2014
192 pp


Writer Thomas Beller has put together this small volume which is not so much a biography but a book that reads like a series of meditations on JD Salinger. He has gathered a number anecdotes  by some of the people with whom Salinger lived and worked, combed through boxes of correspondence, visited places and people where Salinger spent time while growing up, and even used small bits of Ian Hamilton's court-blocked, unauthorized biography of the writer, which Beller had obtained on loan from a friend.  All of these parts are quite good, and while not as analytical as one might hope, they do offer a little more of a peek into the reclusive Salinger's earlier life.

As I got deeper into this book though, I discovered that it's also a blending of Beller's own story in terms of his love of Salinger (and the English teacher who turned him on to the author), and also in terms of how and where his own family's path crossed those of Salinger and his family in the past.   Some years back I read Mark Christensen's biography of Ken Kesey called  Acid Christ: Ken Kesey, LSD and the politics of ecstasy, where the author did pretty much did the same thing, and as with this book, I was not amused.  I also think that considering that Mr. Beller set up a model for understanding more about Salinger's writing  in a "tryptych" divided into three time periods, he moves around too freely through time and sort of throws that model out the window. For example, while speaking about events in the 1940s, the next chapter moves to Joyce Maynard who lived with Salinger for about nine months in the 1970s, then we're back to 1945.  Not only is it confusing, but it made me wonder why he would leave his own investigative framework to veer off this way.  The whole approach is also rather informal, not what you'd expect in an examination of such a famous person, and it has a sort of unfocused, kind of airy feel to it.

While the insights into Salinger via the letters, the interviews, the examination of his Jewish heritage and the tours around New York were interesting and kept me reading,  a) there wasn't a lot there and b) I was not at all impressed with the author's attempt at  "biography as a work of art" here. It comes across as a little more  artsy than informative, and it just wasn't something that left a huge impression or added more to the mystery life of this reclusive man.