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'Salinger' lifts author's fierce veil of secrecy

Scott Bowles, USA TODAY

Given his disdain for celebrity and public life, J.D. Salinger likely would have hated Salinger (***½ out of four

Simon & Schuster, 575 pp.).

Considering Salinger's equal contempt for lazy journalism, though, he may have appreciated the nine-year effort to document a life defined by scarcity.

Eloquently written and exhaustively reported — Salinger devotees may say too exhaustively — this nearly 600-page biography of the author of The Catcher in the Rye marks the most revealing portrait yet of a writer who, in the span of four slight books, became the postwar voice of American adolescent angst.

But authors David Shields and Shane Salerno have bigger game in mind than tracking a career that, technically, ended in 1965 with Salinger's last story to appear in print, the novella Hapworth 16, 1924, which ran in The New Yorker.

Instead, the biography — and a documentary directed by Salerno that arrives Sept. 6, three days after the book — aims to flesh out the creator of Holden Caulfield, a man who, when he died at 91 in 2010, was known as much for his half-century of seclusion as for Catcher, his totem of alienated youth that has sold more than 65 million copies.

To that end, Salinger is an unmitigated success. The book made news before it hits shelves Tuesday spet. 3 with dozens of photographs and letters from Salinger's friends, who knew him simply as "Jerry."

More tantalizing: the book, citing "two independent and separate" but anonymous sources, says Salinger authorized the posthumous publication of several works, including five new Glass family stories; a novella based on his counterintelligence duties during World War II; and The Last and Best of the Peter Pans, which the authors say delves further into the life of Holden Caulfield and his family. The book does not cite a publisher, but says the stories will hit shelves as part of a "specific timetable" from 2015-2020.

Those details alone will likely satiate Salinger fanatics, who have subsisted on little more than rumors and the hope that Salinger would break his half-century of silence after retreating to his home in Cornish, N.H. He never did.

But the authors have fleshed out a startlingly revealing story through interviews with more than 200 of Salinger's friends, neighbors, lovers and fellow Army vets — many of whom provided previously unseen pictures of a grinning, mustached Salinger, who took his typewriter and first six chapters of Catcher with him to war.

To the authors' credit, Salinger is hardly a fawning fan's view. Shields and Salerno paint the writer as a conflicted, privileged New Yorker who expected to find a romantic story from battle but instead grew disillusioned by the five brutal European campaigns he saw in the war, including the D-Day invasion of Normandy.

Salinger finds its rhythm in de-mystifying the writer, whom the authors claim bore little resemblance to his legend. He was a fixture of Cornish, insulated by protective neighbors and, despite his public scorn for Hollywood, was fond of having friends over to watch classic movies on his reel-to-reel.

The book also contains unpublished correspondence with young women, contact that occasionally unsettled parents. While the book alleges no inappropriate conduct, it contains revealing letters from Salinger to the then-teenaged Jean Miller, who would be the inspiration for his classic short story For Esme — With Love and Squalor.

Ironically, Salinger's thoroughness may prove its toughest challenge for readers. Shields and Salerno did Watergate-like reporting for the biography (Salerno personally spent $2 million researching the project), and document some details that could make Salinger fans squirm, including that he was initially rejected from the service because he was born with one testicle.

Others may take issue with the book's un-Salinger-like bravado. In Catcher, he wrote that a mature man lives humbly for a cause instead of dying nobly for one. Salinger is not a humble book. The authors trumpet revelations and dismiss previous biographies as incomplete snapshots.

But that doesn't make their claims inaccurate, and there's no denying that Shields and Salerno have struck journalistic gold. Salingeris a revelation, and offers the most complete picture of an American icon, a man deified by silence, haunted by war, frustrated in love — and more frail and human than he ever wanted the world to know.