At Home in the World By Joyce Maynard Picador USA; 347 pages; $25
Reviewed by Jules Siegel for the San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday, September 6, 1998
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.
A child-prodigy 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.
Salinger attempts 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.
Salinger’s career 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 and dear.”
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 she asked.
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 me.”
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.”
” ‘No,” 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.