J. D. Salinger: The Escape Artist

  • Review
By – February 25, 2014

J. D. Salinger: The Escape Artist, Thomas Beller’s biog­ra­phy of one of the world’s most revered reclus­es of lit­er­ary genius, opens with Son­ny” — as he was then called — at four years old, dressed in full Indi­an cos­tume and a suit­case of toy sol­diers in hand, thus dis­cov­ered by his moth­er in their apart­ment building’s lob­by sev­er­al hours after he had marched out of the fam­i­ly abode fol­low­ing an argu­ment with his sis­ter and ward for the after­noon, Doris. Moth­er,” young Salinger prompt­ly announced, I am run­ning away. But I stayed to say good­bye to you.”

It is no easy task to write about the life of a fanat­i­cal­ly pri­vate pub­lic fig­ure, as Beller well knows in embark­ing on the project with an illic­it advance proof of Ian Hamilton’s ill-fat­ed Salinger biog­ra­phy, famous­ly (in the pub­lish­ing world, at least) con­test­ed by its sub­ject all the way to the Supreme Court. Any­thing writ­ten about Salinger becomes a work on the process of writ­ing about him itself, the sto­ry of the inves­ti­ga­tion almost sup­plant­i­ng that of the elu­sive sub­ject. Ful­ly aware of the nature — and, per­haps, neces­si­ty — of this approach, Beller adds a third dimen­sion in The Escape Artist: Beller’s own auto­bi­og­ra­phy. In trac­ing the time­line, anec­dotes, cor­re­spon­dences, and envi­ron­ments of Salinger’s life, Beller reflects not only on each expe­ri­ence of encoun­ter­ing and exhum­ing these mate­ri­als, set­tings, and sources, but also on mem­o­ries from his own child­hood and career, unfurled over much of the same land­scape, amid the same land­marks and cul­ture ter­rain, as J.D. Salinger’s.” With each pro­gres­sion in the biog­ra­phy, Beller con­sid­ers the hazy sup­po­si­tions around rev­e­la­tions into Salinger’s per­son­al his­to­ry against the moments and real­i­ties of his own sec­u­lar but deeply Jew­ish upbring­ing on the Upper West Side of New York City, and of his career as a writer.

The result is a bal­anced and enjoy­able work that reads like a walk­ing tour of J.D. Salinger’s life. Beller trans­ports his audi­ence into the scenes of the biog­ra­phy, describ­ing, nar­rat­ing, and anno­tat­ing at each venue as though shep­herd­ing a group of vis­i­tors on site, pro­vid­ing a cur­so­ry overview to each peri­od and facet of the subject’s exis­tence and embell­ish­ing with lit­tle-known facts, sto­ries, and odd­i­ties like a sea­soned docent.

Beller’s guid­ance extends to Salinger’s writ­ing, ground­ing his analy­sis of both well-known and obscure works in the con­text of the events, val­ues, and atti­tudes of the social­ly aloof (half-) Jew­ish writer raised in an upward-mobi­liz­ing house­hold, edu­cat­ed in a prepara­to­ry mil­i­tary acad­e­my, and sent to Vien­na at the brink of World War II. He vac­il­lates between grad­u­ate writ­ing pro­grams before his enlist­ment as a coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence offi­cer in a unit tri­an­gu­lat­ing the 123 camps of the Dachau con­cen­tra­tion com­plex, and lat­er mar­ries a Nazi (whom he brings home to live with his par­ents on Park Avenue). He is alter­nate­ly deter­mined to see his work and name rec­og­nized, pro­tect­ed, and withdrawn.

J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist proves a nice com­pan­ion to the recent pub­li­ca­tion of a small col­lec­tion of Salinger’s ear­ly sto­ries: The Young Folks,” Go See Eddie,” and Once a Week Won’t Kill You.” Indeed, Beller’s close read­ing of these among oth­er works illu­mi­nates the devel­op­ing sig­na­ture voice and per­spec­tive of Salinger’s lat­er, most pop­u­lar writ­ing. Along with the back­sto­ry to Salinger’s first pub­lished sto­ry — a minia­ture saga in its own right — Beller points to the shrewd skill and obser­va­tion employed in the open­ing sen­tence of The Young Folks”; pon­ders the sib­ling dynam­ics in Go See Eddie” in com­par­i­son to Salinger’s close rela­tion­ship with his sis­ter Doris; and con­nects the contributor’s note sub­mit­ted with Once a Week Won’t Kill You” to Salinger’s exile over­see­ing an indus­tri­al live­stock pen for his father’s ham busi­ness in a small town of north cen­tral Poland.

Read on their own, the three ear­ly sto­ries are com­plex and, at first skim, as unlike­able as the char­ac­ters they con­tain. But there is, even in these fledg­ling works, a rich­ness to Salinger’s writ­ing that deep­ens upon clos­er exam­i­na­tion: pick­ing out the social nuances of a par­ty in one side character’s glance, shed­ding vio­lence in a dia­logue as though the inter­locu­tors could hear their own nar­ra­tor pro­vok­ing them, sharp­en­ing the lilt of a spouse’s coo to a shriek. Pre­serv­ing these near­ly lost pieces of J.D. Salinger’s ear­ly oeu­vre, Three Ear­ly Sto­ries proves that even his most neg­li­gi­ble writ­ing stands the test of time.

Relat­ed Content:

  • J. D. Salinger Read­ing List
  • Daniel Tor­day: Jews and the Novella
  • Ilan Mochari: West and Schwartz, Dream­ing at the Movies
  • My Salinger Year by Joan­na Rakoff
  • Addi­tion­al Title Fea­tured in Review

    Nat Bern­stein is the for­mer Man­ag­er of Dig­i­tal Con­tent & Media, JBC Net­work Coor­di­na­tor, and Con­tribut­ing Edi­tor at the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and a grad­u­ate of Hamp­shire College.

    Discussion Questions