A Biography

By Paul Alexander

Renaissance Books. 351 pp. $24.95

When someone once asked J.D. Salinger what his initials stood for, the answer he gave may have been one of his most revealing quips: "Juvenile Delinquent." As author of "The Catcher in the Rye," the classic of adolescent distress in postwar America, and as creator of Holden Caulfield, contemporary literature's most famous teenage rebel, Salinger wrote the book, as it were, on juvenile delinquency. Wrote it, stayed with it and lived it to an aberrant degree. His obsession was "very young people." He wrote about them, identified with them, idolized them, fell in love with them, married them.

This fixation with adolescence--the J.D. in Salinger, so to speak--accounts for one-half of his public image. The other half is dominated by his celebrated retreat from the media, the public and, more remarkably, from publishing altogether. (Since 1965, he has let the world know that he writes only for himself, and refuses to be published.) Now in his eighties, Salinger still lives on his secluded New Hampshire property, badgered by the occasional student or fan in search of an interview or a sighting.

Paul Alexander, a journalist and biographer, duly traces both halves of the Salinger image in this new biography. (Salinger succeeded in banning from publication a previous literary attempt on his life by Ian Hamilton, the British poet and biographer.) Drawing on the aborted Hamilton biography, the recently opened New Yorker archives and interviews with peers from Salinger's literary realm (George Plimpton, Tom Wolfe, Gordon Lish and the like), Alexander furnishes a faithful if unimaginative overview of Salinger's eccentric career.

Salinger began writing stories while still a senior at Valley Forge Military Academy, where he was sent after dropping out of the exclusive McBurney School on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Fueled by early success as a short-story writer, he kept writing--all through his World War II service in the savage Battle of the Bulge; through his popularity as a New Yorker writer in the '40s and '50s; through love affairs, marriages, divorces and hectic literary acclaim.

When "The Catcher in the Rye" first appeared in 1951, its success was almost instantaneous despite mixed reviews. Over the next decade it sold roughly 100,000 copies a year, soon becoming both a bible of teenage dissent and a staple of high school and freshman college English courses. To date, the total figure approaches something like 60 million copies. ("Catcher" aficionados are probably also aware of other trivia of the novel's impact. It inspired the story that led to the movie "Field of Dreams." It also inspired a number of assassins and would-be assassins, including John Hinckley and Mark David Chapman, John Lennon's killer. An American novel, one might call it, of considerable reach.)

Not long after "Catcher" appeared, Salinger became increasingly fed up with publishing and the public. He refused to make the minimal promotional efforts expected of writers. No author photos, he stipulated. No contributors' notes, no interviews, no lectures, no advertising copy, no blurbs. By 1970, having decided to stop publishing, he repaid a $75,000 advance to Little, Brown for a book of fiction. That Holden Caulfield and the young Salinger are one and the same person is no surprise. (Though himself half Jewish, half Irish, Salinger was a teenage dropout from the WASP private-school world that set off Holden's revolt and breakdown in the novel.) That Holden may be the older Salinger as well is the more telling biographical detail, one that this book fails to explore as a clue to what makes Salinger tick.

"Perhaps," the author speculates, Salinger "made sure through the years that periodically he dropped enough clues about himself to tease the fans and the press into seeking him out." Hard to believe that anyone could sustain a 40-year tease of that sort, least of all a thin-skinned, grudge-bearing perfectionist like Salinger, who takes away his marbles and would sooner be seen as having lost them than play an unwanted game.

Closer to the truth, it seems to me, is writer Gordon Lish's take: "The man probably initially lost his nerve and then he got in the habit of being quiet. One gets fixed in a position for no reason at all." Salinger's fixed position as a recluse has been solidified, I suspect, by his fixed position as teenage rebel--a persona, for better or worse, he has never quite outgrown. As Russell Hoban put it, "He lives in a state of resentment for reasons I don't know. He doesn't have what he wants and I'm not sure what it is."

The adolescent condition, in sum.

Wendy Law-Yone, whose most recent novel is "Irrawaddy Tango"

CAPTION: Salinger, the eternal teenager.