Sergeant Salinger

Written by Jerome Charyn
Review by G. J. Berger

This fictionalized account of J. D. Salinger’s WWII years and recovery (1942-47) opens in New York City. He lives with his parents in their Park Avenue co-op and has a budding romance with Eugene O’Neill’s gorgeous daughter. The draft rips him away from this comfortable life. Nearly fluent in German and French, Salinger is taken by the Counter Intelligence Corps. These hard-edged soldiers interrogate captives, seek out danger (poisoned pretzels, booby-trapped toilet seats), and uncover traitors. His unit lands with the invading armies on D-Day and accompanies them from Utah Beach, up through Belgium, into Paris, then to Bavaria, and the rescue of living skeletons at a concentration camp. Always the writer/observer, Salinger sees details others do not and absorbs deeply the carnage close to him.

At war’s end, he has become “a guy made of glass” with a facial tic and trembling hand. He checks into a mental hospital in Nuremberg, where he and his doctor’s assistant engage in a hot romance and wed. Salinger brings the German bride home to his imperious mother and hovering relatives. The marriage breaks down after eight months. In the novel’s last scenes, his older sister, Doris, watches out for Salinger and helps him set up in the suburban loft where he can live alone, write, and heal.

Charyn peers into the traumas that formed the lifelong recluse and his enigmatic stories. The author stays true to the main characters (Salinger’s family, war companions, even Ernest Hemingway) and the settings from Manhattan to the hell of war in flooded bogs and frozen forests. His prose and dialogue fit the times and places. Though minor parts are fictionalized, the whole story makes for an engaging and informative rendering of an important American author.