When you, in your freshman year English class, read Holden Caulfield for the first time and came to class the next day and begged your teacher to tell you more about this Salinger dude because he seriously blew your mind, she smiled and said certain words: “recluse,” “private,” “camera-shy,” “hermit,” “genius.” Then you did some Googling and you saw these words over and over again in reviews and interviews. A story formed in your head. When you re-read Catcher in the Rye or read for the first time Salinger’s other stories—which you loved even more than Catcher, and from which you memorized passages you would have tattooed on yourself had your parents let you—you were enamored, consciously or subconsciously, with an image of this man in a snow-covered cabin in the New Hampshire mountains.
The new documentary Salinger spends most of its time attacking this popular conception of Salinger’s life. It wants you to use new words to talk about the author: “vain,” “sensitive,” “vindictive,” “predatory,” “scarred,” “victim.” When these attempts are successful, the film can be genuinely moving, especially in the context of Salinger’s undeniable genius. Almost everything else about the documentary, however, is subpar. From the bizarre soundtrack to the awful pacing to the gossipy stories and their accompanying re-enactments, Salinger is a letdown.
Before I can go on pretending to be able to approach anything about Jerome David Salinger rationally, I have to be clear about something: I adore this man in the deepest, most italicized parts of my soul. I cried reading almost every one of his short stories. Franny & Zooey is my favorite book. I have two copies of it just in case. No small part of my love for him is love for his mystery, and I think that no one who feels as I do about his books does not include among their reasons for loving him Salinger’s emphasis on dissolving the ego. For fans like me, appreciating him on this level means being blinded by his glamour in some way: feeling that he lived the life we wish we could, better than we ever would.
Salinger’s strict privacy of course makes it tricky to chronicle his life, and it’s obvious almost at once that this documentary is not going to go well. It begins with a montage of friends, editors, and admirers speaking about Salinger’s legacy, predictable documentary fare inexplicably set against the kind of fast-paced, dramatic music that should only be in action films. The score proves to be one of the most ridiculous parts of the documentary, and emblematic of the thing as a whole. Sometimes cheesy (the last song in the movie is Coldplay’s “Strawberry Swing”), and always overwrought and distracting, it is often simply inappropriate. For example, when the film discusses the manuscripts Salinger kept locked away in a safe, ominous clangs sound, like something out of the “Law & Order: SVU” introduction. It makes Salinger seem like a twisted, creepy old man with a penchant for young girls.
Which is not to say that this is not true. The film works hard to complicate the perception of Salinger as a wise hermit. His craft is applauded, but director Shane Salerno emphasizes the toll it took on him. Salinger’s commitment to his work, it seems, made a happy life difficult, if not impossible. The film postulates he suffered from serious post-traumatic stress disorder after seeing the horrors of Dachau (Salerno shows excessive footage of charred, emaciated bodies, and flashed back to at different intervals throughout the movie, a move I found gratuitous), but it also reveals with a heavy, over-dramatic hand that he married a woman who had been a Nazi. His various ex-lovers and wives tell stories of his secrecy and coldness as the camera zooms in and out on a picture of a couple ensconced in an alley or walking barefoot on a beach. His taste for young women is obvious. (Ex-girlfriend Joyce Maynard recently suggested in a New York Times op-ed that Salinger used the power he knew he had over young people to attract women to him.) His daughter’s interviews with Katie Couric are excerpted, in which Peggy Salinger claims to have “no relationship” with her father. A friend of an ex-wife cries when she remembers their marriage. One of Salinger’s closest friends recounts his vindictive nature. Even fans who did not know the man are allowed to express their discontentment with him: a man who waited for him at the bottom of his driveway gets extended screen time to complain that Salinger was once unkind to him.
My love for Salinger can withstand this kind of mean-spirited shelling, luckily for me. If anything, this focus on his worst attributes made me appreciate him more. His gift for telling beautiful, honest stories that simultaneously criticized and redeemed his readers was immense and his commitment to it overwhelming. It must be hard to have the most important part of your existence necessitate spending hours and hours within your own screwed-up head. When Jean Miller, a girlfriend of Salinger’s, tells how he ended their relationship when she interfered with his writing, I was on Salinger’s side. Learning that Salinger had demons and failures and sometimes was just an asshole makes me appreciate the beauty of his work more. In fact, the only part in the documentary that truly angered—not just irritated—me was the part where his work was criticized. I can accept any interpretation of him as mean and cruel and maybe sexually perverted. I refuse to accept any interpretation of his work as less than “perfect,” to use the same word many people interviewed in Salinger did. When the documentary’s climax (its importance signaled by the sudden, melodramatic swelling of that ridiculous score) flashed summaries of his last five books across the screen, I got goosebumps.
And so, even though Salinger is a tacky, gossipy, and sometimes boring mish-mash of speculation, sloppy re-enactments, and conventions that would be more in keeping with a soap opera, I am—ultimately—touched by its central theme: genius. When I left the dark theater for the golden light of the early fall I suddenly found that I didn’t want to go home right away. I wasn’t sure I was ready for the real world just yet. Something in Salinger told me I needed to be alone for a little while longer.