Sergeant Salinger, Jerome Charyn. New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2021.
Summary: A fictional account of J.D. Salinger’s early adult life, centered around his wartime service with the CIC including the landing at Utah Beach, fighting in Normandy’s Hedgerows, the interrogation of German captives, the harrowing fighting of Huertgen Forest during the Battle of the Bulge, and the discovery of a Nazi death camp.
J. D. Salinger was one of the more enigmatic and reclusive authors in the twentieth century. Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey are among the most significant novels of the twentieth century and arguably influential on the style of other more recent works. In this work of fiction, that closely follows Salinger’s biography Jerome Charyn explores the impact of World War Two on the trajectory of Salinger’s life between opening and closing scenes in New York.
The work opens with Salinger invited by the debutante Oona O’Neill to join her as Walter Winchell held court at Table 50. At this time he’s completed prep school, has had a few stories published while Oona is serving as eye candy as Winchell hobnobs with the likes of Hemingway. He loves Oona but the war interrupts their relationship. After a tantalizing but unfulfilled last night, she goes to Hollywood while he is drafted and sent to England with the Counter Intelligence Corp while training as a rifleman.
He carries a satchel with a manuscript whose main character is Holden Caulfield and he writes when he can on an old army issue Corona. That is, until the horrors of war interrupt. He witnesses a horrible training accident at Slapton Sands and has to help with the coverup, burying the bodies. He is in the second wave to hit Utah Beach, shepherding his captain, who is shell-shocked to safety. He joins the fighting in the hedgerows of Normandy. He survives the horror of Huertgen Forest in the Battle of the Bulge. He stumbles on a Nazi death camp, unable to get rid of the smell of burning and rotting bodies, and the horror of the walking dead, the few survivors. All of this actually happened to Salinger.
Charyn portrays a Salinger psychologically damaged, needing to check into a psychiatric institute, where he meets and later marries Sylvie, another brief and failed relationship. He feels so damaged, he helps with de-Nazification rather than going home as soon as possible. He’s not lost his humanity, tenderly rescuing and paying for the care of Alicja, a young girl assaulted in the camp, left tongue-less. When he does return, he has episodes of “zoning out” and only with the care of family, especially his sister Dottie does he get to the place where he can write in an apartment on Sleepy Hollow Lane.
Was Salinger a victim of PTSD? That is what Charyn and others who have written of Salinger would have us believe, His daughter Margaret would contend otherwise. But the novel offers a compelling portrayal of a psychologically scarred Salinger, leaving us wonder how things would have been different apart from the war.
Charyn frames the work with two unfulfilled relationships, with Oona and Sylvie. That maps with much of Salinger’s life. His second marriage ended in divorce after eleven years. He had at least two more brief relationships before marrying for the third time in 1988, a marriage that lasted until he passed in 2010.
Finally, we are left wondering what will happen to Holden Caulfield. Will the manuscript in the satchel see the light of day? We know the answer to that, but the end of the novel leaves us wondering what else that Salinger wrote has yet to see daylight. His last published work was in 1965 but he continued writing throughout his life. We’re left wondering whether we’ve seen Salinger’s best.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers Program. The opinions I have expressed are my own.