‘Sergeant Salinger:’ A masterful reimagining of the author’s secret life during WWII

Thursday, February 11, 2021 - 7:02pm

NOSELL

Claire Yang

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”

— J.D. Salinger, “The Catcher in the Rye,” 1951

“The Catcher in the Rye” is an ode to angst through the hilarious musings and reflections of Holden Caulfield. Reading it is a teenage rite of passage, and the novel’s themes of innocence, identity and loss remain with many long after their adolescent years have passed. Though everyone who reads it feels intimately acquainted with Holden, few know anything about his creator, author and notorious recluse J. D. Salinger. 

In his latest book “Sergeant Salinger,” Jerome Charyn, a prolific author of historical fiction, reimagines Salinger’s early life in kodachrome detail. Charyn follows Salinger’s path from his parents’ apartment on Park Avenue to the battlefields of Normandy and beyond, ending in the Tarrytown, N.Y. loft where much of “The Catcher in the Rye” was written. Grounded in biological fact and topped with a generous helping of imagination, Charyn’s novel wonderfully recreates the war years of J. D. Salinger. 

Charyn sets the scene in 1942 New York, populating it with vibrant characters and period-correct lingo. The opening sequence, featuring an acerbic Walter Winchell (the famed New York gossip columnist) and the “voluptu-u-u-u-os” Oona O’Neill, is an intriguing, dramatic accomplishment. Here we are introduced to a young J. D. Salinger, “A tall yid, with big ears and olive skin and a Gypsy’s dark eyes.” As an upcoming young writer, Salinger’s short stories published in the “slicks” — magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and The New Yorker — had already accumulated a measure of fame. Charyn acquaints the reader to Salinger’s life in New York only to rip them away with the arrival of a draft letter.

Trained within the shadowy Counter Intelligence Corps, the sensitive Salinger is molded into a ruthless interrogator. The author follows Salinger, cast as a reluctant soldier but an excellent survivor, through many of the most notorious campaigns of World War II. From the beaches of D-Day to occupied Paris, he encounters prominent historical figures, including Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. and Ernest Hemingway. 

He experiences the terror of the Hürtgen Forest “where toes froze off” and the nauseating liberation of a Bavarian death camp “where corpses were piled like cordwood.” Inexorably scarred by the “stench, the crippling acid smell of rotting flesh,” a haunted Salinger drifts dreamlike through the rest of the war. Though Salinger’s lucidity returns when necessary, his mental deterioration by the end of the war is alarming.  

As only the finest protagonists are, Charyn’s Salinger is wonderfully conflicted. Expertly drawing out Salinger’s struggle, Charyn demonstrates the dual nature of a young soldier caught between his humanity and his survival. At once a killer and savior of children, Salinger performs admirably throughout the war. Able to discern forgeries and sniff out lies with the ease of a priest at confession, Salinger struck fear into the hearts of the Germans and French Nazi collaborators. Even as he became known for his ruthlessness as an interrogator, he showered refugees with GI cigarettes and Hershey bars.

Rich with neither narrative nor scenery, “Sergeant Salinger” succeeds largely through the strength of its dialogue. Salinger’s steady voice guides the many dialogue-heavy scenes, evident especially during his interrogations of suspected Nazis. It’s a fast read and a blur of a story toward the end, as Salinger’s mental state fragments. The prose is fairly minimalist, with adjectives picked and placed sparingly. 

Often, the novel reads like a tribute to the literary lions of Charyn’s own youth including Hemingway, Kafka, Fitzgerald and, of course, Salinger (Jerome Charyn is 83 years old). At times, Charyn cannot resist throwing in a reference; “He also admired the lushness of Fitzgerald—Gatsby was his favorite book.” 

One of Salinger’s most famous short stories, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” is alluded to when Salinger asks his sister, “Doris, do you remember the bananafish?”, after which she promptly questioned his sanity. Charyn clearly draws inspiration from writer Kurt Vonnegut; “Sergeant Salinger” resembles a more coherent “Slaughterhouse-Five.”

Charyn’s ability to create dynamic characters is his other great success. Bold in the way only an older writer can be, Charyn writes Hemingway in as a character. Though Charyn’s Hemingway is slightly exaggerated, many of his mannerisms seem perfectly emulated. From their first meeting in the celebrity-dappled Stork Club to their reunion in war-torn Nuremberg, Salinger’s interactions with Hemingway are audacious and memorable. Other characters, such as Salinger’s sister, Doris, are complex and fully realized — she even narrates one of the last chapters during his return to New York as he struggles to readapt to civilian life. From rabid SS commandos to charismatic American lieutenants, Charyn’s characters are capable of inspiring both palpable loathing and starry admiration. 

If you’re looking for a classic combat novel, “Sergeant Salinger” may miss the mark. Yet, if you are looking for a more nuanced war novel, a story of World War II and what it did to the young men forced to fight it, this is the book for you. 

Salinger entered the war with a youth’s vitality and emerged warped, his conscience twisted irrevocably by the futility and suffering he witnessed. Despite some chronological irregularities, the novel skillfully blends fact and fiction. Charyn writes the war through a surreal lens, mimicking the experience of scores of disillusioned young soldiers, Salinger included. This is perhaps one of Charyn’s broader points — that the absurdity and trauma of WWII eclipse even the wildest fantasies of any writer. It doesn’t matter whether everything in the book is factually true: Salinger’s real war experience could hardly have been less extraordinary. 

Far more than a biopic of the enigmatic man who began writing of Holden Caulfield during scattered moments in bunkers and foxholes, “Sergeant Salinger” is an homage to what might have been and possibly was. Though we’ll never know all the true details of Salinger’s life, contenting ourselves with Jerome Charyn’s masterful reimagining will have to do.

Daily Arts Contributor Sam Mathisson can be reached at mathiss@umich.edu   


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