In the last couple of years there has been a shift in confessional writing from the craze for tortured self-absorption (from Elizabeth Wurtzel and Andrea Ashworth, amongst others) to the impulse to torture a friend/relative/lover, preferably a famous one. Joyce Maynards book, along with the du Pre siblings A Genius in the Family and Claire Booms recent revelations about the writer Philip Roth, lifts and flings wide open the lid on a stash of personal suffering and betrayal, and revels in the satisfaction of what must be a particularly sweet form of revenge.
Maynards subject is her nine month relationship with the writer J.D. Salinger, perhaps the most mysterious and worshipped of all living American novelists. Salingers refusal to share any detail of his life with his readers is infamous. For thirty years he has not even deigned to allow his image to appear on the cover of his books. Soon after completing what has been hailed as his masterpiece, The Catcher in the Rye, he disappeared from public life, moving to a secluded house in Cornish, New Hampshire. By the late 1960s, Salinger had ceased to publish at all, an act that seems to have secured him a place in the canon of great American literature once and for all.
Its to this isolated house that Joyce flees from her alcoholic father and overbearing mother, who trained Joyce to churn out a well-turned phrase, as long as it mimicked her own style and opinions. Following the publication of her article "An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back on Life" in the New York Time Magazine (the cover of which also featured a photograph of Joyce looking rather like a bookish Kate Moss), Salinger took the opportunity to write to her, praising her writing and warning her of the dangers of publishing. He was 53, she was 18. Joyce, flattered by the attentions of a man who claimed to be her "landsman", swiftly fell in love and into the dangers of a relationship with a manically controlling older man.
Maynards book makes it clear that she refuses to respect Salingers call for privacy. She portrays his hatred of the media as a hatred of the world, apart from those uncorrupted, innocent souls of children, particularly little girls such as Phoebe in Catcher and Maynard herself when she shacked up with him. (She arrived at his house wearing a shift dress with A and Z appliquéd to her out-size pockets, no make-up and flat Mary Jane shoes). Its interesting that in the press, Maynard has taken most of the flack for their affair, despite her evidence that Salinger is an obsessive emotional, if not physical, abuser of young women. The US press have scornfully compared Maynard to Monica Lewinsky – and perhaps this is resonant in that both women insisted on invading a powerful mans privacy rather than see herself erased by history, reduced to the (semen) stain on an illustrious career. Maynard, it has been argued, shows no respect for the genius of Salinger or the personal nature of their affair. It seems to me that Maynard wanted to tell the story of her life – and this was something she could not do without including J.D. Salinger.
In fact, although Maynard describes Salingers centrality to the development of her adult life, at least half of the book doesnt include him. She has said that it is a book about "surviving ones family", and insists that she wrote the of her experience with Salinger as a warning to all young women including her own daughter who may be tempted to let an older man steal their voice. Maynard skilfully relates this process with great economy. There are plenty of quietly telling moments: Jerry comments that a woman he doesnt like has a "mouth like a cunt" whilst Joyce silently submits to sucking him off every night; Jerry and Joyce dance to Cole Porter in his living room he re-living a world of memories, she barely having the chance to construct a history for herself in this New Hampshire wasteland.
Eventually, Joyce is able to become everything that Jerry is not someone with a family and a public life, someone willing to take the risk to publish. This is all very satisfying, but the trouble is that the book loses something without Jerry. Without him its the perfect material for a womans magazine serial just a rather flat, overly detailed story of a womans everyday problems with her family and career. I hate to say it, but once Jerrys gone, theres no juice. Maynard cant keep us hooked with her subsequent family dramas because essentially theres no one in them but her no other character rises above two-dimensions.
However, At Home in the World is, in parts, a disturbing and deceptively simple exploration of an ambitious young womans struggle and small victory – with a giant of American literature. And its revenge rating is second to none.