Unless you’re dealing with, say, a Tolstoy or Mark Twain or Ernest Hemingway, making a writer the subject of a full-length documentary film risks boring the audience. After all, writing is a notoriously solitary occupation, and -- let’s face it -- most writers live a life of the mind, not of action.
If the subject happens to be J.D. Salinger, one of the two most famously American reclusive fiction writers (the other is Thomas Pynchon), the director’s work is doubly difficult. Unfortunately despite its two hour length and wealth of talking heads, "Salinger" doesn’t shed all that much light on Salinger’s life, and even less on his muse.
Shane Salerno spent nine years working on the film, and his one big "get," which comes at the end of the film, has generated a good deal of publicity. We learn that there was a safe in Salinger’s rural New Hampshire home that contained a few manuscripts which his estate trust plans to publish over the next several years.
While this is certainly big news in the literary world, I’m not sure it’s worth getting the treatment of Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone’s vault, especially since the works as described sound like fictionalized memoirs. One thing we do learn about Salinger is that he really, really hated memoirs -- especially about himself.
That’s why he cut dead Joyce Maynard (one of the barely legal young women who became the object of his desire) and his own daughter. The cooperation of the former provides "Salinger" with some of its best insights. The obvious refusal to cooperate by the latter -- along with Salinger’s other child, Matt -- is unfortunate.
Along with Maynard, one other love interest, Jean Miller, contributes the other really salient interview. Salinger met Miller shortly after the war at a hotel in Daytona Beach, Fla., when she was only 14. He wrote off Maynard, who moved in with him, when she was 18.
Do you detect a pattern here? Salinger was, to put a cap on it, a chicken hawk. So it’s doubly ironic that the one who got away, Oona O’Neill, the beautiful daughter of playwright Eugene, married Hollywood’s own lover of teenage girls, Charlie Chaplin. (To be fair, the two stayed happily married for the rest of Chaplin’s life and she bore him eight children.)
O’Neill and Salinger carried on a correspondence while he was fighting in Europe, and Salerno sees his combat duty as the key to the demons driving his subsequent fiction. The child of privilege, Salinger fought at D-Day and witnessed the liberation of one of the Nazi death camps.