Jerome David Salinger had one novel published in his lifetime. It was titled “The Catcher in the Rye” (just in case you were one of the rare few never exposed to it) and it has sold over 65 million copies since being published in 1951. It continues to sell over 250,000 copies annually and since the release of Shane Salerno’s documentary about the book’s author, it has leapt from 125th to 76th on the USA Today list of best-selling books.
Salingeris a lengthy, very detailed documentary that sometimes wanders too far afield in its attempt to create visceral visual images of J.D. Salinger. It challenges the notion that he was a recluse to avoid people by claiming that he was very carefully gaining greater publicity by pretending to be reclusive while making carefully planned public appearances.
Put together by the director over a protracted period; and somehow they kept the project secret for five years. That there was a painstaking, incredibly deep level of research involved is obvious. One cannot ignore the photographs of the author never seen before in public, or the recollections of people who knew the man. Among the luminaries interviewed for and appearing in Salinger are Salinger’s former girlfriend and author Joyce Maynard, Martin Sheen, E. L. Doctorow, John Cusack, Robert Towne, Philip Seymour Hoffman and many, many more.
The film tells the story of how Salinger came to write, how his time in the U.S. Army during World War II was indelibly etched into his psyche, and about how Oona O’Neill broke his heart when she dumped him to marry the much older Charlie Chaplain. Unfortunately there is little in the film about how his relationship with O’Neill may have been the locus for Salinger’s own predilection for pursuing women much younger than he.
Much is made of the obsession that so many have with Salinger’s seminal work. Mark David Chapman was captured after he murdered John Lennon with his personal copy of “The Catcher in The Rye” in his possession, a note he wrote to its protagonist “Holden Caulfield” inside of it. John Hinckley Jr. and Robert David Bardo also cited the book as an influence on their heinous crimes (Hinckley of course tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan while Bardo murdered Rebecca Schaeffer). The film also explores Salinger’s obsession with being published in “The New Yorker”, a feat he wasn’t able to achieve until after his service in World War II.
There are other authors who published only one novel that was a gigantic success, Harper Lee immediately comes to mind. But there is no other author who put out only one novel that was read so widely by teens, that spoke so well to their angst and that appears to be timeless. This is a solid documentary and anyone other than a paid researcher into the life of J.D. Salinger will come away from the auditorium knowing more about the man than they did when they sat down.