Reviews > Published on June 4th, 2014

Bookshots: 'J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist' by Thomas Beller

Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review


J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist

Who Wrote It?

Beller...focuses on the minutiae of Salinger’s existence, the small details that Shields' biography skimmed over...

Professor, novelist, short story writer, essayist, and founder of the literary Journal, Open City, Thomas Beller.

Plot in a Box:

Thomas Beller’s personal journey during the writing of a biography of J.D. Salinger

Invent a new title for this book:

Me and Jerry

Read this if you like:

Salinger by Mark Shields, the books of J.D. Salinger.

Meet the book's lead:

Literary intellectual powerhouse, Thomas Beller, and Jerome David Salinger. And, come on, if you don’t know who he is, you’ve been living under a rock for the past 60 years.

Said lead would be portrayed in a movie by:

Beller would be portrayed by John Hawkes and Salinger by Robert Downey Jr. on stilts.

Setting: Would you want to live there?

Considering that the bulk of the book takes place in New York, you bet your sweet bippy I would.

What was your favorite sentence?

There’s a first time for everything, but I really didn’t have a favorite quote. So, sorry, gang.

The Verdict:

I'll be the first to admit it, I'm not a J.D. Salinger fan.

I know, I know, in certain circles that's kind of like admitting I enjoy stomping puppies to death, but for one reason or another, I’ve never been able to connect with the likes of Holden Caulfield or the precocious Glass family. I guess when it comes to privileged WASP post-war literature, I’m a Cheever man.

But if you asked me if I’d read David Shields and Shane Salerno's massive oral biography, Salinger, or watched Shane Salerno’s companion documentary, my answer would be a resounding YES.

And if you asked if I planned on buying and reading Salinger’s posthumous novels and short story collections, the answer would also be yes.

Why, you ask, would I read the biography, watch the documentary, and plan on buying Salinger’s long hidden books if I’m not a fan of the author? Probably for the same reason you’re going to: J.D. Salinger is the single most polarizing figure in the entire history of American letters. Twain, Hemingway, Faulkner, Vonnegut, Lee, Roth, King (Okay, maybe King ranks with Salinger?), none of them have had the cultural impact of Salinger and his four slim books. Plus, Salinger committed the greatest American sin by not wallowing in his fame and instead chose to disappear completely. For most citizens of the U.S., this withdrawal from public life cemented Salinger as either a hermit/saint or a complete freak. But more than anything, Salinger was a genius, and deserving of our collective attention.

With Salinger’s death in 2010, I expected a virtual avalanche of biographies and scholarly works to come tumbling out of the New York publishing machine, but the only volumes to emerge have been Shields’ massive (and engrossing) work and Thomas Beller’s slim volume, J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist. And to be blunt, I honestly think that these two books are really all that are necessary to tell the story of Jerome David Salinger. In fact, it might be one volume too many.

What sets the two books apart is not only physical size, but overall content, and comparing the two is radically unfair. Shields’ biography is a broad, everything plus the kitchen sink style expose. It revealed Salinger in all his glory and innumerable personal faults, and all of it came straight from the lips of those who knew him best through the various stages of his life. With The Escape Artist, Beller instead focuses on the minutiae of Salinger’s existence, the small details that Shields' biography skimmed over: The summer camp he attended, the boarding schools which shaped his characters, his friendships and teachers, his lovers and children.

The other aspect which sets the two books apart is while Salinger is at times too detached and cold, and so swarming with detail the reader at times is overwhelmed by the scope of the writer’s life and work, The Escape Artist is a far quieter book, and is as much the story of Beller’s journey of researching and writing the book as it is Salinger’s story. The question is, is the story of Beller’s journey enough to sustain the narrative? The answer, unfortunately, is no. Yes, Beller is an exceptional writer (I particularly enjoyed his essay collection, How to Be a Man: Scenes from a Protracted Boyhood), but his deep-rooted infatuation with Salinger and his protracted trip down the scholarly rabbit hole just doesn’t provide enough meat to sustain its slim 192 pages.

About the author

Keith Rawson is a little-known pulp writer whose short fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, and interviews have been widely published both online and in print. He is the author of the short story collection The Chaos We Know (SnubNose Press)and Co-Editor of the anthology Crime Factory: The First Shift. He lives in Southern Arizona with his wife and daughter.

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