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January 12, 2021

Jerome Charyn's Playlist for His Novel "Sergeant Salinger"

Sergeant Salinger by Jerome Charyn

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Jerome Charyn's novel Sergeant Salinger offers a haunting portrait of J.D. Salinger's life as both a World War II soldier and post-war civilian.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"[A] literary tour de force. . . . Charyn vividly portrays [J.D. Salinger’s] journey from slick short story writer to suffering artist. The winning result humanizes a legend."

In his words, here is Jerome Charyn's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Sergeant Salinger:

I had no soundtrack in my mind, real or imagined, when I wrote Sergeant Salinger. A good portion of the novel takes place during World War II, when Salinger, a member of the U.S. Counter Intelligence Corps, experienced horror after horror, from the landing on D-Day at Utah Beach to the Battle of the Bulge and the liberation of a Nazi death camp in Bavaria, where he discovered dead men in striped pajamas piled liked cords of wood. And there aren’t any musical moments suggested in Sergeant Salinger, but the novel brought back certain songs that haunted my childhood during the war (I was five in 1942), particularly songs that came from radio broadcasts or the movies. I had my idols. My own particular favorites were the Andrew Sisters, Patty, Laverne, and Maxene. I was in love with Patty throughout the war, with all her glorious blondness. I gazed upon her as the one and only beautiful sister in films such Buck Privates (1941), which featured “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” (nominated for an Academy Award), and Hollywood Canteen (1944). I can still summon up “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” and “Rum and Coca-Cola.”

The Andrews Sisters also appear as disembodied creatures in Sergeant Salinger. Sonny, as Salinger was called, had to identify each of the Andrews Sisters at a checkpoint in “The Green Hell” of the Hürtgen Forest, or he might have been arrested as a German spy . . .

He rattles off their names—“Patty, Laverne, and Maxene”—and gets through the checkpoint unscathed.

Another favorite of mine was British songbird Vera Lynn, who delivered “We’ll Meet Again” and “White Cliffs of Dover” with great gusto. The sound of her voice still represents the sadness of war. And when Sonny is training as an intelligence agent in Tiverton, a small town in Devon, England, I could imagine Vera Lynn serenading him, as she still serenades me, at night sometimes, as I’m tumbling out of a dream.

“We’ll Meet Again” has remained with us for over seventy years, as has Dame Vera Lynn, who was knighted in 1975 and died in 2020 at the age of 103. She was considered the sweetheart of the armed services during the war, when she entertained British troops throughout the world. But the song itself has probably eclipsed Dame Vera and all her honors. Stanley Kubrick used “We’ll Meet Again” in the very last moments of Dr. Strangelove (1964), in the middle of a nuclear holocaust, and the song also appears in the final scenes of the BBC’s brilliant serialized teleplay, The Singing Detective (1986), written by Dennis Potter. But I still associate the song with Sergeant Salinger, with a Yank caught in Devon and Bavaria, who never really recovered from the maddening brutality of war.

Jerome Charyn is the author of more than fifty works of fiction and nonfiction, including Cesare: A Novel of War-Torn Berlin. He lives in New York.

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