If further proof is needed of Oscar Wilde’s contention that “When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers,” one need look no further than the life of author J.D. Salinger.
As delineated in Shane Salerno’s energetic, informative and at times over-dramatized documentary, “Salinger,” the celebrated writer spent the first part of his life lusting after literary success and the rest of it recoiling in horror at the consequences of his passion, refusing to publish anything and retreating to self-imposed, semi-reclusive exile in out-of-the-way Cornish, N.H.
But because he was J.D. Salinger, the author of “The Catcher in the Rye,” which has sold some 60 million copies and been called “the great subversive anti-establishment book of all time,” no one would leave him alone. Complete strangers would stalk him until, as one recounts in the film, Salinger would end up snapping, “I am not a teacher or a seer. I’m a fiction writer.”
Though he never camped out in front of the great man’s door, filmmaker Salerno is one of those obsessive fans. Best known for writing decidedly nonliterary movies such as “Savages” and “Armageddon,” Salerno has spent nine years and an estimated $2 million of his own money investigating Salinger’s life.
The photographs and information Salerno unearthed over all that time are impressive and, despite a disingenuous publicity-seeking plea by the Weinstein Co. to keep things secret, it has all been made public by journalists who had access to the information well before the film was screened for critics.
Among Salerno’s finds are a snapshot of Salinger working on “Catcher in the Rye” during a mesmerizing moment of World War II downtime, as well as brief home movie footage of him interacting with French civilians after the country’s liberation.
We also learn about his brief postwar marriage to a German who may have worked for the Gestapo, and, in what is big news in literary circles, about the five books that Salinger, who died in 2010 at age 91, had written and arranged to be published starting in 2015.
It does zero harm to reveal these secrets because the lure of “Salinger” in no way depends on keeping them quiet. What compels us is the energetic — at times too energetic — pulse of Salerno’s investigations, the sheer amount of work he’s done and the almost 80 people he’s persuaded to open up on camera about their relationships with the man friends called Jerry.
Though neither of Salinger’s children nor his widow sat for interviews (daughter Margaret is shown in old “Today” show clips), we do hear from people who were important in the writer’s life. They help us understand how Salinger, in ways both sensible and strange, dealt with the enormous celebrity that came his way after “Catcher” was published in 1951.
The young writer had his first short story in print in 1940 when he was 21, but his great dream of being published by the New Yorker was derailed by World War II. He took part in the D-Day invasion, saw almost a year of fierce combat and was one of the first soldiers to enter a sub camp of Dachau, experiences that led to a post-traumatic stress disorder breakdown and continued to have a powerful impact on him. “You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nostrils,” he once said. “No matter how long you live.”
A perfectionist about his writing who could get melancholy about a misplaced comma, Salinger had yearned for success without realizing it would mean intrusions into his personal life as well as ungovernable demands on time when he wanted to be writing. Seen in that light, the writer’s move to New Hampshire and his decision to keep working but stop publishing make a certain kind of sense.
That’s especially true when you realize that Salinger was never as much of a hermit as the media made him out to be. “He’s not a recluse,” Gore Vidal huffs. “He appears when he wants to.” And that is exactly the case. Salinger also found time for the companionship, platonic and otherwise, of very young women.
The film has tracked down Jean Miller, whom Salinger first met on a Florida beach when she was 14 and inspired one of his most famous stories, and talks extensively with writer Joyce Maynard, who famously moved in with Salinger when she was 18 and he was 53.
All of this is compelling. But Salerno, as if he’s unsure of what he’s got, goes to great lengths to heighten the drama with crisp editing, a strong score, frequent sound effects and snappy visuals.
Less successful are the film’s frequent dramatic re-creations of events in Salinger’s life and, even worse, what it assumes is going on in his mind. Using the inside of downtown Los Angeles’ Bradbury Building — one of the most instantly recognizable interior spaces in America — to substitute for a Manhattan publishing house is especially egregious, and one suspects that Salinger, an avowed enemy of phoniness, would hate the whole business.
More than that, as a compulsive protector of his own privacy, the man would of course be horrified by the tell-all nature of “Salinger.” While it’s impossible not to be drawn into the drama of the story, on a deeper level our fascination with the painful details of his life is disturbing. J.D. Salinger sacrificed a great deal for his privacy, and there’s something inescapably sad about seeing it stripped away.