At Home in the World

David L. Ulin reviews 'Two Cities' by John Edgar Wideman

Published September 14, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Joyce Maynard -- whose byline, depending on the reader's tastes, is regularly greeted with everything from sympathy to disgust -- plays her trump card here. If she hasn't yet won the record for sustained self-indulgence in print, this latest memoir, which documents her affair with J.D. Salinger, might just give her the edge she needs. Maynard's highly personal books, essays, newspaper columns and Web site have inspired truckloads of mail over the course of her 26-year career. Her story is, by now, familiar. In 1972, as an 18-year-old Yale undergrad with off-the-charts ambition, she appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine as a self-appointed spokeswoman of a generation. The then 53-year-old "Jerry" Salinger spotted the piece and lured her to New Hampshire. After months of playing a kind of eroticized Daddy Dearest, he dropped Maynard abruptly.

To read "At Home in the World" doesn't require a suspension of disbelief, but it does require the suspension of literary standards. Because Salinger copyrighted his letters, Maynard can quote only small portions and must largely resort to paraphrase. Then there's the issue of dialogue re-created from a quarter-century ago. Perhaps to compensate for these logistical obstacles, Maynard writes in a taut present tense. Event follows event too closely, as if she's sealing herself and her readers from interpretation: "My throat is sore from making myself throw up. I write Jerry daily."

Sadly, Salinger's warnings to Maynard -- about the seduction of fame, the fresh but ephemeral perspective of youth, the strict conditions under which true art can thrive -- offer the only compelling themes in the book. Savvy readers may often find themselves siding with Salinger. Yet the author of "The Catcher in the Rye" emerges as a pathetic figure himself. In Maynard's retelling, he's gentle at first, then caustic: a lonely man whose misanthropy guides his every act.

You never doubt Maynard's account in "At Home in the World," if only because she's so damn thorough. But thoroughness isn't a virtue in itself. The best memoirs are selective, not comprehensive; they transform the personal into the universal. Maynard's attempt to do this leads her to the notion of motherhood. She wants her children to feel what she didn't feel as a child: "at home in the world." The title phrase echoes like a hard slap in Salinger's face. Surely the bitter recluse -- the man who chased an ideal of feminine precocity -- would never be comforted by this brand of worldliness.

Joyce Maynard is no Phoebe Caulfield. Holden Caulfield's kid sister preserves a mystery; she practices discretion. As Salinger wrote, "When [Phoebe] can't think of anything to say, she doesn't say a goddam word." It's not Maynard's fault she had an alcoholic father and a suffocating mother. It's not her fault she swallowed the clichi of making it big in New York. And it's certainly not her fault she lost the innocence that might have first drawn Salinger to her. She can, however, be blamed for not sifting through the wreckage, for choosing simply to tell all.

By Katherine Wolff

Katherine Wolff is a freelance writer and editor living in Boston.

MORE FROM Katherine Wolff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------