Reviewer: Paul Burke
Publisher: No Exit Press, 21st October 2021
ISBN: 978-0857304711 PB
This is biographical fiction at its absolute best, respectful of fact but brilliantly inventive. Sergeant Salinger is a reimagining of the early adult life of JD Salinger and it creates a truly credible image of the emerging reclusive and misanthropic writer. It also throws light on the origins of his universal coming of age tale The Catcher in the Rye. Charyn made me believe in Sergeant Salinger, this is a portrait of the author before he was feted as one of the twentieth century’s most significant writers. It made me question some of the things I took for granted about Catcher and rethink some of the meaning in that tale. A novel seen as one of the most iconic of American literature.
Roughly a year ago I was interviewing Jerome Charyn about his last novel, Cesare, a literary thriller set in war-time Berlin. As part of the research I was lucky enough to get an early sight of Sergeant Salinger and I was captivated by it. I thought Cesare was a fine novel but I was struck by the character of Salinger in this book even more. I couldn’t say much at the time but now it’s a real pleasure to be able to share some thoughts with you. Let’s start with Charyn, he’s a one off, he is now in his eighties and going as strong on the page as ever. He has written some of the most original crime fiction out there but has always roved where the spirit takes him and biographical fiction clearly intrigues him. In one novel reimagining Lincoln during the Civil War and, in another, throwing light on a side of Emily Dickinson’s character not often seen before but drawn from her letters. Now Charyn tackles the author responsible for one of the most talked about and read novels of the twentieth century, a book that defines a generation of American youth – The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger’s moment of glory and millstone. Salinger is a mysterious and reclusive presence that haunts the American dream, and, to some extent, contemporary literature and literary studies.
Nobody writes the true man, or woman, when they fictionalise a person, it’s always their own version that comes to the page but that ability to ponder the thoughts behind the actions of a real person can illuminate so much in the right hands. In this case Charyn’s are the right hands. As a fictional recreation of Salinger this feels authentic, it makes some of the nuggets we know about Salinger click into place. Perhaps the thing that illustrates the strength of this novel the most is not that this is as gripping as a thriller, though it is. Or, that it is beautifully written, elegantly structured and at times poetic, again it is. No, what makes the most impact is that I felt I understood this character; where he was coming from, how the youthful man starting out in life could become a wary and lonely writer. This is the making of the man we all have that vague connection to through his rites of passage novel.
We first encounter Salinger trying to make sense of his relationship with Oona, later Oona Chaplin, but then the war happens. Salinger is thrown into the European theatre of WWII, his experience is what shapes him. He is a rifleman-come-interrogator working for Counter Intelligence with the British. From D-Day to the Battle of the Bulge and finally to the discovery of the death camps, Salinger is scarred. As an interrogator he is confronted with Nazis, perpetrators, deniers and complicit witnesses and tries to fathom the depths of depravity and degradation he sees: ‘Look for the narrative.’ Square the circle. Can any sense be made of the Holocaust, can it be seen up close and then compartmentalised – of course not.
‘Salinger, don’t go in there – don’t go through the gates. We’ve been abandoned. The lord has left the lights out in Bavaria.’ Major Olivier Kaufering IV
This is a novel of PTSD and of the wounds that all soldiers are burdened with when faced with killing and death and inexplicable horror. In the final part of the novel Salinger brings a German wife and his pain and suffering back with him to New York. The readjustment to civilian life is incredibly difficult. Along the way we see how these things play into his imagination as the landscape of The Catcher in the Rye, both physical and psychological is modified and formed in his head.
This is a deeply perceptive novel; a troubling and intelligent portrait of a tormented man. It’s a monumental feat of melding fact and invention and makes a real man of a shadow figure. If you haven’t read Charyn start here but don’t end here. I think you may arrive at a better understanding of the creation of Holden Caulfield and the writer JD Salinger.