If You Really
Want to Hear About It
Memoir recalls the author's
youthful affair and long-term obsession with J.D. Salinger
REVIEWED BY Jules Siegel,
At Home in the World
By Joyce Maynard Picador USA; 347 pages; $25
Joyce Maynard's dazzling
memoir, "At Home in the World,'' reveals the details of her
nine-month affair with J. D. Salinger when she was 18 years old.
writer whose work began appearing in Seventeen magazine when she
was 15, Maynard came to Salinger's attention in 1972 while a freshman
at Yale, when the New York Times Sunday Magazine published her
photograph on its cover in connection with her essay "An
18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life."
In a cover shot
by Alex Gotfryd she's the classic girl-child, looking much younger
than 18, with huge eyes and long-toed feet right out of Lolita.
In the actual Times cover picture, she wears an oversized watch
like the one worn by the flirtatious 12-year-old British girl
in Salinger's short story "For Esme -- With Love and Squalor."
Salinger, then 53,
began a months-long courtship by mail and telephone, which culminated
with Maynard's visiting him at his farm in New Hampshire and eventually
dropping out of Yale and moving in with him. She was still a virgin,
and so tense that their relationship was never fully consummated.
In one scene she
writes: "He takes hold of my head, then, with surprising
firmness, and guides me under the covers. Under the sheets with
their smell of laundry detergent, I close my eyes. Tears are streaming
down my cheeks. Still, I don't stop. So long as I keep doing this,
I know he will love me."
Coming across as
pompous, astoundingly unfeeling, deceptive and defiantly hypocritical,
Salinger indoctrinates her with his homeopathically inspired theories
about food, teaches her how to induce vomiting in order to avoid
absorbing "toxins," has her share a diet so austere
that she stops menstruating, and generally makes himself the absolute
center of not only her personal world but also life as we know
it. In one scene, commenting scornfully on the Beatles and their
Maharishi, he takes rueful credit for having created the Oriental
philosophy fad, conveniently ignoring the Transcendentalists,
Herman Hesse and Alan Watts, among others.
to talk her out of cooperating in the promotion of a book that
Doubleday has contracted her to write. As she senses, this would
very effectively keep her from escaping into the real world he
disdains and, one gathers, fears so much. After nine months, during
which he encourages her to believe they will have a child, he
abruptly discards her as if she were a worn- out toy, precipitating
a blinding depression and a long-lasting unrequited obsession
that she confronts at last in writing "At Home in the World."
advice does have some very significant long-range benefits. He
urges her to avoid pandering for the glitter of fame, warns her
against falling into the dishonest traps of the publishing world
and instructs her to write honestly about what she know best.
"Suppose you made your subject something you loved and admired,"
she recalls Salinger telling her. "Something you held precious
One wonders how
he feels about that advice now.
As might be expected,
the news of Maynard's plans to write about Salinger elicited the
obligatory sneers. On his "Bananafish" Salinger Web
site, Stephen Foskett has written, ". . . proving that money
gets more important with age, she plans to publish a memoir of
her relationship with Salinger and her letters from him."
Although she could
hardly have been unaware of Salinger's commercial value, an objective
reading affirms that Maynard's main aim was to discharge herself
of pent-up pain. If she merely wanted money, she could easily
have sold her 40 pages of Salinger correspondence for whatever
In any case, the
star of this absorbing, funny and emotionally blistering book
is not J. D. Salinger but Joyce Maynard. Although the affair with
Salinger is the most newsworthy material in the book, it's the
rest -- her classic baffled writer's family, her woeful failed
marriage, her children, her career adventures -- that hits the
hardest. Salinger is just one more exquisitely drawn character.
The book would stand on its own if she changed his name and identity
and just made him another gray-haired '60s guru, as writer-director
Phil Alden Robinson did when he adapted Salinger's part in W.P.
Kinsella's "Shoeless Joe" into the James Earl Jones
character in "Field of Dreams."
This is a book that
reads as if spoken. The writing is clear, eloquent and unpretentious,
like Shaker furniture rendered in words. She avoids poetic effects.
In this sense, Salinger's influence is very obvious, but she actually
surpasses him in depth of feeling, especially at the end, when
she strips off the last of her psychological bandages and walks
around in raw grief, anger and overwhelmingly touching self-acceptance.
She writes, "If I tell what I do, nobody else can expose
At one point she
tells how, when the movie of her novel "To Die For"
was chosen to open the Toronto Film Festival, she called her older
sister Rona, a Toronto resident, expecting to be invited to stay
with her three children in her sister's spacious house. This idea
went over at first like a turd in the punchbowl, but then Rona
called her back to offer the house after all. Rona and husband
Paul would stay in a hotel, though.
Each morning during
the visit, Rona and Paul came over to their house for "an
enjoyable breakfast with us," Maynard writes. " 'You
know, Rona," I say, "sometimes I get the feeling you
don't even like me."
she says slowly, in a way that makes me understand how hard it
has been for her. 'It's just that . . . you .. . take up . . .
so much space."'
Indeed she does,
and thanks for it. "At Home in the World" is a memoir
that demands reading for the astounding pleasure to be found in
a writer who has the courage to show herself inside out.
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