'Salinger' sifts through plenty of evidence, but leaves the mystery unsolved

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 13 2015 8:50 a.m. MDT

J.D. Salinger during the liberation of Paris in 1944, from the film J.D. Salinger during the liberation of Paris in 1944, from the film "Salinger." (The Weinstein Company)

J.D. Salinger is Holden Caulfield.

That seems to be the core thesis of "Salinger," a new documentary that examines the life and work of a man who climbed the heights of literary fame, then spent the rest of his life trying to escape that same spotlight.

Caulfield is the embittered teenage protagonist of Salinger's only published novel, "The Catcher in the Rye," and the teen's disenchantment with the phony adult world he encounters on a fictional trip to New York City is mirrored in the behavior of the man who created his character. Through a series of interviews conducted with former friends and longtime admirers shortly before the author's death in 2010, "Salinger" paints a portrait of a disillusioned man who struggled to separate his reality from his own fictions.

Much of the film is spent analyzing the women in Salinger's life, starting with Oona O'Neill, a Hollywood starlet he lost to Charlie Chaplin when he was barely into his twenties. We also learn about his first wife, Sylvia, a German woman he met and married in 1945 while still serving in World War II; Claire Douglas, the mother of his two children; and Joyce Maynard, a young author who lived with Salinger in the early 1970s.

It is through these and other relationships that the documentary clarifies its premise: that J.D. Salinger was unable to strike a balance between the characters idealized in his writings and the people (especially women) he encountered in reality. Once a wife or a girlfriend passed from the idealized stage, Salinger was all too happy to shut out her reality. And once a friend committed even a slight betrayal in his eyes, that relationship was over as well.

One of the more revealing passages in the film traces Salinger's experience serving in World War II. Salinger arrived in Europe on D-Day, made his way through the liberation of Paris and the Battle of the Bulge, and eventually helped uncover the horrors of the Holocaust. His proximity to these events impacted him deeply, not unlike Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller, two other post-World War II authors whose life work was influenced by their wartime experiences.

But unlike Vonnegut and Heller, Salinger was actually working on his masterwork while he was still in the service; pages from "Catcher in the Rye" were actually on his person when he landed on Utah Beach. As you might expect, a great deal of "Salinger" is focused on the role of that novel in turning its author from an up-and-comer to a reclusive near-phantom holed up in Cornish, N.H.

"Salinger" is both critical and sympathetic to its subject, painting him as distant and difficult in his romantic relationships but an almost relatable victim when confronted with the desperate fans who would go to extreme lengths to seek out the man behind Holden Caulfield. The documentary doesn't attempt to present Salinger's reaction to his novel's connection to noted assassins like Mark David Chapman and John Hinckley Jr., but maybe it doesn't need to.

In total, "Salinger" might be an excellent documentary to watch if you want to know more about author J.D. Salinger, but the only way to truly know him may be to assume that everything he wrote was autobiography.

"Salinger" is rated PG-13 for some profanity and a number of unsettling photographs and video footage from World War II concentration camps.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on the "KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at www.woundedmosquito.com.

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