By Margaret Salinger
Subtitles can tell you a lot about a book. Sometimes they can tell you everything. A case in point is Margaret Salinger’s Dream Catcher, which is simply subtitled “A Memoir.”
Memoir has become autobiography’s narcissistic evil twin, and in the past few years it has been quite a growth industry. Day time talk shows, personality radio, the rise of what has been dubbed the “Me-journalism” have all indoctrinated us into a cult of self. Memoir has become lucrative as well as therapeutic, especially when it can cash in on celebrity.
And so we have Dream Catcher.
Dream Catcher is not a biography of J. D. Salinger, the author’s reclusive father. Biographies usually have indexes (which would have been a big help here) and don’t refer to their subjects as “daddy.” While Margaret Salinger does go into some of the facts of her father’s early years, and also offers some decent critical interpretation of his work, this is only a fraction of the whole.
The rest of the book, the part having to do with Margaret, is a predictable sort of talk show tragedy. Her parents did not get along and, in a fit of depression, her mother may have tried to kill her children by setting fire to the house while they were sleeping inside. In other highlights she is molested by a baby-sitter, has an abortion while still a teen, attends Woodstock, goes through psychoanalysis, and ends up in Oxford and Harvard Divinity School on her way to becoming a minister.
There is enough dramatic material here for half a dozen books, yet none of it seems very important. One reason may be the talk show factor, the sense that we have heard all of this many times before. Another culprit is the undergraduate quality of the writing, informed by long digressions on subjects such as anti-Semitism in America and the social psychology of cults that seem lifted entirely from a couple of popular books on the subject. Discursive footnotes that only illustrate how shallow Margaret’s reading has been only make things worse.
But enough of that. The only reason anyone is going to read this book is to find out what sort of dirt Margaret has to spill about her famous dad. Does she deliver? The answer depends on how low you set the bar.
J. D. Salinger was a spoiled only son who grew up, quite naturally, to idealize childhood and despise women. After busy service overseas in World War II he came back to pick up his career as a writer, going on to create one of the most popular novels in American history, The Catcher in the Rye, in 1951. He also got married, though his attitude toward his wife was callous at best, and seems to have degenerated quickly into a kind of spiritual loathing. Throughout this period he experimented with various belief systems, including Zen Buddhism, Vedanta Hinduism, Kriya yoga, Christian Science, Dianetics, “something having to do with the work of Edgar Cayce,” Yogananda’s Self-Realization Church, homeopathy, acupuncture and macrobiotics. As part of one of these (I’m not sure which) Margaret even suggests that he may have sank to drinking his own urine.
It’s dirt alright, and may well be true, but is it news? Take, for example, Salinger’s relationship with his wife. Why the fact that Salinger is a misogynist jerk would come as a surprise to anyone who has read his fiction, where women (as opposed to little girls) are typically portrayed as stupid, inconstant and affected animals, is hard to figure out. Most great writers, let’s face it, are arrogant, self-centred, and irresponsible. I know this isn’t fair to all writers, but the exceptions only prove the rule. J. D. Salinger, who was and maybe still is a great writer, was not an exception.
It is hard to find anything in Dream Catcher that comes as a revelation. It may seem strange that an author whose most famous work is an assault on “phoneys” should join so many bogus cults, but the inconsistency is only superficial. Margaret tells us that in Salinger’s vocabulary “sentimental was a very damning word indeed,” but to call him anything but a sentimental idealist would be to mistake him entirely. It is the sentiment of Catcher in the Rye – Phoebe on the merry-go-round, Allie’s baseball glove – that has made it one of the twentieth century’s best-loved books. “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies,” Holden Caulfield says, but Dream Catcher shows us the reality: a man wearing out prints of Gigi and Breakfast at Tiffany’s through endless home screenings.
Sentimental? You bet! Thank heavens for little girls, indeed!
You have to admit there is a consistency to Salinger. The would-be catcher in the rye did go on to live in his shack in the woods. Unable to bear the applause of an ignorant audience capable only of worshiping image and celebrity, Holden declares that if he were a great piano player he would only play for himself in his closet. It is, apparently, what Salinger has been doing since 1965. We are told that he still writes, and that he has a safe full of manuscripts locked and filed away for posthumous publication, but given the conditions he is working under it is hard to feel optimistic about the results.
Dream Catcher is a bad book, make no mistake. But it may be just the book that daddy deserved. Joyce Maynard’s 1998 self-help-style memoir of her affair with Salinger was one thing, but for a determined recluse to be outed by his own daughter, now grown into a poster-girl for Oprah-style wellness, empowerment and self-healing, the effect must be wormwood. Even more than that, it is nemesis. Margaret’s public therapy is as much an indulgence of the self as her father’s obsessive privacy and specious mysticism are an attempt to escape and transcend it.
Is this the sound of one hand clapping? Talk about an ironic applause!
Review first published October 7, 2000.