Books: Ah, Dull Revenge

Joyce Maynard lets it rip about her shattering affair with J.D. Salinger. But do we really care?

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As she tells it in her newest book, Joyce Maynard received a mimeograph machine from her mother for her seventh birthday. Not lacking in initiative, young Maynard began producing a newspaper and selling it door to door. "It would never occur to me that our neighbors wouldn't be interested to read what I write. Or that I shouldn't charge a nickel for it. Later a dime," Maynard notes. "My mother schools me young to view my writing as valuable. She conveys another lesson too: whatever happens in my life, I can look at it as material."

Call it the gift that just keeps on giving. Maynard, now 44, published her first memoir at 19, and since then has earned her living doing little besides writing about herself. She has a website of course) plastered with snapshots of herself and her children, on which she solicits financial contributions and provides links so that people can buy autographed copies of her books, tapes of her commentary for NPR and a CD she's created to go with one of her novels; subscribe to her newsletter; read reprints of her syndicated column; and peruse rambling letters about her latest doings. (Last week, we were delighted to learn, Maynard was in the Hamptons with her painter friend Paco, who "keeps a stew pot going, filled with some amazing concoction containing fish and potatoes and herbs and wine.")

To hell with all that, the browser, the literary gossip and even the Maynard fan must think at some point: tell us something we really want to know. And now, Maynard has tried to oblige. In At Home in the World (Picador; 352 pages; $25)--yes, it's another memoir--she lifts the veil on the devastating affair she had with J.D. Salinger when she was 18 and the reclusive author of Catcher in the Rye was 53. Maynard's recounting is full of all those key details sympathetic girlfriends require. He made her eat frozen Birds Eye peas for breakfast and then throw up; he seemed to get along best with very young girls; they couldn't even manage to have sex. Any spurned lover can understand Maynard's desire to tell all: after convincing her they are "landsmen"--soulmates--Salinger dumps the vulnerable teenager cruelly and without explanation. The problem is, for someone who uses the letter I as if there were no other vowels on her keyboard, Maynard turns out not to have an introspective bone in her body.

Flatly written, with detail piling upon detail like so much slag on a heap, Maynard's memoir returns repeatedly to the idea of emotional and literary honesty. "Some day, Joyce, there will be a story you want to tell for no better reason than because it matters to you more than any other," Salinger tells her. "You'll simply write what's real and true." Maybe this is it. But where Salinger, or many a better writer, would have fictionalized his truths, opening up new universes for the reader, Maynard sheds no light on anything beyond the little spotlight she is standing in. She had a complicated childhood, a shattering love affair, a complicated adulthood. Join the club, kiddo, as Salinger himself might say.

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