This fictionalised biography of the life of JD Salinger certainly begins with a name-dropping bang. Within the first twenty pages, we are in Manhattan’s legendary Stork Club, and we are rubbing shoulders with – alongside the young writer himself – Ernest Hemingway, Walter Winchell, Merle Oberon, Peter Lorre, and the bewitchingly erotic daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill, Oona, who would later – much to Salinger’s chagrin – marry Charlie Chaplin.
This prelude takes place in 1942, but two years later Salinger is in literally much deeper and more dangerous waters. He is a sergeant in the American army’s Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) and has been posted to Tiverton in Devon, where the 4th Infantry Division is preparing for the D-Day landings. Salinger has to count the corpses as the US Army desperately tries to cover up two separate disasters which result in the deaths of over nine hundred American servicemen. The Slapton Sands fiasco (Operation Tiger) is described here.
The novel follows Salinger’s progress as he survives D-Day and the push through Normandy. He finds himself busy in French villages where former Nazi collaborators are trying to reinvent themselves as patriots, and he witnesses the scenes in Paris where the population takes revenge on men and women who co-operated with the German administration.
By far the toughest part of Salinger’s war, in terms of physical danger, is what he calls ‘The Green Hell.‘ The American forces were held up in the autumn and early winter of 1944 as the retreating German army took up positions in the Hürtgen Forest – over 50 square miles of dense and mountainous woodland on the Belgian German border. With splinters from shell-shattered trees causing as many casualties as bullets, the Americans suffered huge losses and only took the area when the German Army was eventually defeated at what has become known as The Battle of The Bulge.
Worse awaits Salinger, however. Not in terms of his own physical safety, but through a dreadful discovery which was to scar the minds of many of those who were present. As the Americans advance into Bavaria, they come across Kaufering Lager IV – part of the Dachau concentration camp complex. All but a handful of camp guards and administrators have fled, leaving behind them a scene from hell.
“Sonny climbed down from the jeep. He saw several axes near the siding, axes covered in blood. The guards must have been in a great hurry. They’d slaughtered prisoners of the camp even while they were herding them into the cars. Sonny found several bodies without head, hands or feet. He could follow the path of their butchery, footprints etched in blood.”
He discovers that the stationmaster of the railway siding is still hiding in his house. He gives Sonny (Salinger) a kind of perverse and depraved guided tour.
“The stationmaster led Sonny to three barracks that were partly underground, like wooden bunkers, but these bunkers had been nailed shut and set on fire while still packed with ‘citizens’ of Kaufering, the camp’s slave labourers. Sonny had to wear a handkerchief over his mouth and nose, otherwise he would have fainted right in the Lager. He couldn’t understand how the stationmaster had survived the stench, the crippling acid of rotten flesh.
‘Open the barracks,’ Sonny said, ‘Every one.’
‘But that is impossible,’ the stationmaster said, ‘It is not my job. I am responsible for the trains.’
‘Open’, Sonny said, handing him a bloody axe, ‘Or I’ll execute you on the spot.’
The stationmaster saluted Sonny with a sudden respect. ‘Yes, Herr Unteroffizier.’
He chopped away at the wood, pried out the nails, and opened the barracks, one by one. Some of the charred bodies were still smouldering. They were packed so tight, skull to skull, covered in shreds of their own burnt hair, that they had a perverse, horrifying beauty, as if they’d been sculpted out of fire.”
This horrific experience, on top of so many other traumas, tips Salinger into a kind of temporary insanity, and he checks himself into a German psychiatric clinic, where he meets a young German doctor, Sylvia Welter. They have a strange, but doomed attraction to each other and, when, war ends, they marry. Eventually the couple return to New York but, as they set up a kind of home with Salinger’s Jewish parents, it is clear that the marriage is dead, and Sylvia returns to Germany.
Sergeant Salinger is both dazzling and disturbing, and Jerome Charyn has written a brilliant account of Salinger the soldier, Salinger the writer and – above all – Salinger the troubled but deeply compassionate man. It is published by No Exit Press and is available now.