Sergeant Salinger by Jerome Charyn

From the PR: “J.D. Salinger, mysterious author of The Catcher in the Rye, is remembered today as a reclusive misanthrope.

Jerome Charyn’s Salinger is a young American WWII draftee assigned to the Counter Intelligence Corps, a band of secret soldiers who trained with the British. A rifleman and an interrogator, he witnessed all the horrors of the war – from the landing on D-Day to the relentless hand-to-hand combat in the hedgerows of Normandy, to the Battle of the Bulge, and finally to the first Allied entry into a Bavarian death camp, where corpses were piled like cordwood.

After the war, interned in a Nuremberg psychiatric clinic, Salinger became enchanted with a suspected Nazi informant. They married, but not long after he brought her home to New York, the marriage collapsed. Maladjusted to civilian life, he lived like a ‘spook,’ with invisible stripes on his shoulder, the ghosts of the murdered inside his head, and stories to tell.”

There’s a massive difference between the “Sonny” Salinger of this novel’s prologue – an aspiring short story writer chasing his romantic infatuation with Oona O’Neill in the Stork Club and meeting Hemmingway for the first time – and that of the Sergeant Salinger of the coda – drifting through his memories as he tumbles down an escalator at Bloomingdales in 1947 (a point at which part of his famous novel had already appeared in a serialised form) struggling to come to terms with his experiences in the years in between.

Sergeant Salinger by Jerome Charyn explores Salinger’s war years, how the horrors and tumult of emotions witnessed and experienced shifted and formed the young writer’s mind and outlook to the point where the naive romantic of 1942 could, less than a decade later, deliver a defining novel oozing in edginess and scathing critique of modern society.

Salinger’s war years are richly imagined, blurring lines between fiction and reality – there was a lot here that sent me to check ‘did that actually happen’ and with so much of it genuinely having taken place (Exercise Tiger really was the horrific cock up it’s described as here and more).

We view the horrors and brutality through Salinger’s experiences whether it’s coming ashore with the second wave on Utah beech and spending hours wading through water, the green hell of Hürtgen Forest or the liberation of Kaufering IV in a way that’s at times reminiscent of Catch-22 with its mix of the absurdity and tragedy of war and the increasingly detached state “Sonny” begins to inhabit – Salinger was hospitalised for ‘combat stress reaction’ after the defeat of Germany. We see a writer being shaped by both events and a growing disillusionment with those around him – be it the Hemingway he again encounters in Paris or his own superiors.

Taking a known figure and carving a fictional version of them with a bit of artistic licensing can often go awry in the wrong hands. But with more than fifty works of fiction and nonfiction to his name, Jerome Charyn’s hands are safe ones to be in – here Salinger’s biological facts mix with another talented writer’s imagination to bring the young “Sonny” to life in a way that more straight ahead biographies wouldn’t.

Most importantly, though, even if you’re not familiar with or interested in J.D and his “Holden Caulfield novel” and short stories, Sergeant Salinger works bloody well as a novel in its own right and one very much worth reading.

My thanks to No Exit Press for my copy and to Anne Cater for inviting me to review as part of the blog tour.

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