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Find more Dear Mr. S
[Molly McQuade, a Booklist columnist, is writing a series of meditations on J. D. Salinger that will be published on Booklist Online under the title “Dear Mr. S.” Here is the fourth installment. —Ed.]
Dear Mr. S,
To judge from its hostile reception, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Salinger, the new documentary film, is some blowsy kind of show-stopping, tastelessly maladroit musical, the sort that once was relatively simple to pull off without controversy or complaint—a mildly sleazy Broadway Jerry! complete with underage nymphet jazz quintet, unashamed saddle shoes, a torch song about a certain soigné Sylvia “the Swastika” dame, and blow-out stomper finale by a chorus line of red-hatted Holdens.
S. J. Perelman, be there. (The mocker was, after all, a friend of yours.)
But the film isn’t quite what the naysaying critics have said. Instead, Salinger the movie is an insistently researched aspiring biography by Shane Salerno of yourself—someone who didn’t want any. (Please note the thumbnail portrait of Mr. Salerno here, just around the bend.)
In an ironic turn, Salerno’s theatrically provocative documentary, illustrated with eloquently peaceful New England country landscapes from your neck of the woods, convinces me for the first time that you did the only reasonable thing by fleeing New York City long-term for obstinate seclusion in New Hampshire. By itself this redeems the movie, for me. (I doubt, however, that Mr. Salerno would agree that your retreat was a wise plan.) Perhaps because the film gets further than previous attempts by earlier biographers to uncover facts, Salinger has caused resentment, then managed to inflame it. Hence the squawk of reviewers and reviews. Could someone be envious? I’ll add my own squawk more equitably, I hope, to theirs.
It is a Hollywood production, if an improbable one. With cause, you hated (and loved) Hollywood. Who in that fair city cares, after all, about writers and writing? Or ever has cared, except to exploit them? Still, ask yourself whether you really would prefer a sober “intellectual” film treatment of your life and work. If, Mr. S, you’re feeling particularly honest and ungrudging today, you’ll say you aren’t sure.
What we want is different from what you want. We want more of Salinger, in almost any form. We’d happily accept a novel. A biography. A diary. A scrapbook. A YouTube spot. A tweet. A comic strip. A newspaper article. A sermon. A mere annotation. A film. Evan an index would do the trick. It’s better than nothing.
Yes, we want nothing less than more of you. Sorry. Can’t help it.
Nevertheless, there can be no such thing as a biography of Salinger, not as yet, because the foremost people in your life have chosen not to participate. What we have instead from Salerno is a riotously miscellaneous cast of characters, who seem partly self-made, partly made by you, partly coming apart; and a timeline: when you were born, lived, wrote, fought, loved, and died. These ingredients do not a biography make. They are an anthology by another name, higher priced—an anthology of voices confessing, alleging, and supposing, as quoted far and wide. So if it’s not a biography, and if there can’t yet be a biography, then in place of one let’s consider a related idea.
The idea is this. What you did, Mr. S, was to create and launch a biography of us, necessarily unfinished: all those who somehow find themselves in the books of Mr. S.
That’s why we wish you would keep writing and publishing. It’s purely selfish of us.
For we want to know—we need, with an uncanny craving, to know—that we still exist, thanks to you.
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