By Sky Gilbert
Brother Dumb is a long fictional monologue by a famous American writer, a Second World War veteran who becomes a recluse after publishing a huge bestseller in 1951. Living in the woods of New Hampshire, he adopts various Eastern religions, marries, has a pair of children, and then divorces. He becomes infatuated with an 18-year-old girl after reading a story by her in The New York Times Magazine. They enter into a brief relationship that ends in betrayal. He is currently married to his third wife, a much younger woman.
The famous writer never tells us his name – he only ever refers to himself as “Brother Dumb.” Most readers, though, will be tempted to just call him “J.D. Salinger.”
Gilbert’s book is not a roman à clef. There is nothing about the correspondence between Brother Dumb and Salinger that needs unlocking. Everything, from Salinger’s military service (Utah Beach, interrogating prisoners of war, being one of the first to enter a liberated concentration camp), through his oddball lifestyle (drinking his own urine, meditating inside an “orgone box”), to his personal relationships (the three wives, the affair with the girl whose picture he sees in the Times, his two children), is the same. Even Brother Dumb’s cover shares the familiar, minimalist design of the Salinger oeuvre. Only the names have been (slightly) changed. Salinger’s current wife, Colleen, is “Pegeen” here. His New Hampshire neighbour and friend Justice Learned Hand becomes “Judge Face.” And his entry into Dachau is transposed, rather improbably, to Treblinka (a searing experience that affects the narrator deeply – despite the fact that Treblinka, which is in Poland, was never liberated because it was shut down, ploughed over, and turned into a farm before being overrun by the advancing Russian army).
Still, this is not a book about J.D. Salinger as much as it is an experiment in the psychology of narration. The narrator fancies himself “the silent monk,” but in reality he can’t shut up. His confessions attempt to conceal more than they reveal, yet they ultimately paint a portrait of the artist as an old crank, a monster of selfishness, hypocrisy, vanity, and ego. Overconfident in his self-professed ability to charm, he doesn’t see how badly he fails in this regard. His misanthropy is expressed in murderous fantasies of doing away with all the smelly, stupid people in the world – though he insists that this is only a hatred he has for people “in general.” He appears to lack the capacity to love. The women in his life are dominated and disposed of. His idealization of the innocence of youth is just the fetish of a disillusioned and dirty old man.
Why does this charming man so fail to charm, to convince us that he is indeed a “humble, spiritual man”? In short, it’s because his shtick has worn thin. The narrator’s monologue is built out of expressions like “gee,” “jeez,” “gee whiz,” “yeah,” “you know,” and “really.” There is no faulting Gilbert’s ear for the rhythm of the spoken as opposed to the written word, but it is a voice that seems grotesque coming from a famous author presumed to be in his eighties. It is clearly a performance, and – to borrow one of Holden Caulfield’s favourite expressions – a phony one at that.
But it is not a performance without a purpose. The monologue is driven by the narrator’s urge to manipulate, the famous author’s desire to create an audience in his own divine image. It is his attempt to land a “landsman” or kindred spirit, someone who “sincerely happens to like the same things I do, who thinks the same way.” The problem is that the men in his life don’t make good landsmen and the women reveal too much of themselves to him. (In a loaded phrase both for psychosexual critics and those interested in the striptease nature of memoir, women are criticized for “peeling away all the layers until you get to the mushy center.”) And so the artist’s only true friends are the ones he invents in his fiction. Uncontaminated by the world, they are its only true innocents.
It is sad to think that Salinger might now be just such a pathetic and self-pitying figure: the bitter Mr. Lonelyhearts of the New Hampshire woods, stuck in a stylistic and emotional time capsule, still pining for the loss of his one true love (I mean, of course, the one in the red hunting cap).
As the hoary phrase of the epigraph puts it, the life unexamined is not worth living. But to this we must add that the life untransformed by the imagination is not worth writing. In Brother Dumb, it is only occasional clumsiness in the translation of real life to fiction and the unconvincing attempt to channel Holden Caulfield that in the end hurt an otherwise well-paced and provocative book that sets itself an enormous creative challenge. One feels, and the unfortunate comparison has to be made, that the real Salinger, flushed from his hole, would have led a merrier chase.
Review first published in Quill & Quire, April 2007.