I Was a Teen-Ager for the New York Times

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Jan. 9 1998 3:30 AM

I Was a Teen-Ager for the New York Times

Joyce Maynard sells herself, piece by piece.

There is a gruesome Stephen King story, called "Survivor Type," in which a heroin-addicted surgeon marooned on a desert island successively amputates each of his limbs in order to survive. (Horrid last line: "tastes like ladyfingers ...") This story always reminds me of my Yale classmate Joyce Maynard. Ever since she turned 18, Joyce has been selling off tiny portions of her life, and successfully enough to make many of us envious. Her first coup was perhaps her greatest: the 1972 New York Times Magazine cover story that set a generation's teeth on edge, "Looking Back: An Eighteen Year Old Reflects on Life." (Horrid topic sentence: "My generation is special because of what we missed rather than what we got, because in a certain sense we are the first and the last.")

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The article unpacked what would prove to be Joyce's life baggage: a chirpy, articulate writing style; a weather eye for Zeitgeist shifts; and a narcissistic obsession with herself. Enthralled by celebrity culture, enthroned by the New York Times, for the past quarter-century she has worked "as a reporter on my life's beat." From "The Embarrassment of Virginity" (Mademoiselle, 1972) to "Changing My Breast Size ... Again" (Self, 1997), she has hacked her way through three decades wrapped in a delusion torn from the Oliver Sacks casebook: The Woman Who Mistook Herself for Someone Interesting. "The Millennium and Me"? I'm sure the rough draft is sitting in Joyce's laptop.

Joyce recently announced that she will be looking back again, this time at her nine-month love affair with reclusive New Hampshire writer J.D. Salinger. Her announcement, prompted by the untimely leak of her book proposal, came as a surprise. The Salinger story was always Joyce's literary high ground, a museum piece of integrity not included in the ongoing fire sale of her life experiences. It was a story she had promised repeatedly not to tell. "I will always respect his privacy," she told an interviewer in 1992. "I made that promise a long time ago." When a Salinger biographer approached her earlier this year, she hung up on him.

The Salinger story resembles the "ladyfingers" in the Stephen King tale. It was the last item on the shelf. Everything else has already been shipped out. The late teens went to "Looking Back," which was expanded into a book. She told the story of the halcyon years of her marriage in two children's books and in a syndicated newspaper column. Her divorce, which was not amicable, proved to be edgy fodder for copy. Several newspapers canceled her column, which later morphed into a subscribers-only newsletter called DomesticAffairs. "It's a publication unlike any other I've seen," says ... Joyce Maynard, "full of very honest writing by me and the men and women who subscribe, who send me extraordinarily moving letters about their own lives."

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A fter her marriage folded, Joyce started merchandising ghoulish, oddball dating stories, some of them prompted by this personal ad she placed in Boston magazine: "The truth is I'm gorgeous, slender, talented, and passionate. My academic credentials and creative achievements are impeccable." There's some fiction here: Joyce dropped out of Yale before collecting her impeccable academic credentials. But also some truth: Joyce was an extraordinarily attractive woman. Before the breast implants, that is.

Now we're talking Stephen King. In a desperate commingling of self-abasement and self-interest rivaled only by Kathryn Harrison's memoir of French-licking her father, Joyce sold the story of her 1990 breast-augmentation surgery to Self magazine. Well, OK. The problem was, the new boobs were too big: "My breasts were a size 40, D cup," Joyce wrote. They "stood out like a pair of headlights." So what does a girl journalist do? Whip out the notebook! Declaring herself to be a "researcher investigating the world of big-breasted women," Joyce belched forth a 4,500-word screed in Self this summer, reporting on the implants' removal. Someone floated the notion that post-op Joyce might pose topless for the photo spread. Instead, she is seen grasping the silicone sacs in two separate full-page photos, one captioned, "The nostalgic author holds on to her old implants."

Oddly, none of these adventures crops up in the recent advertising campaign for Scholastic magazine, which features Joyce as a poster girl for youth literacy. Nor are they to be found on her astonishing Calling-All-Lonelyhearts Web site (www.joycemaynard.com), where one can buy past books, a package of the famous divorce columns and, of course, subscribe to the DomesticAffairs newsletter. Lately, Joyce has been posting tales of her recent move to the Bay Area and commenting upon the dating habits of the few other Type A personalities in laid-back Marin County.

It was on the Web site that Joyce first informed her fans that she would "tell a story I've never told before"--about Salinger. A cynic might suggest that by heretofore honoring the 78-year-old Salinger's privacy, Joyce has shrewdly protected her investment. The literary marketplace has assigned a huge premium to true-life tales of Salinger and Thomas Pynchon, two great American writers who quit the publicity mainstream decades ago. A friend who has seen her book proposal reports that it is classic Joyce: gossipy, un-prudish, and self-indulgent, with very little information about Salinger's literary pursuits. (But we do learn that he is into homeopathy.) Small matter that one of Salinger's lawyers has branded Joyce's project "unconscionable." The wheels of commerce--sorry, literature--are a-turning.

With Joycean aplomb, my former classmate is looking to score a twofer. Not only will her book generate interest among lit types, but she is also aiming for the vast, self-regarding "victim" audience. That's right--Joyce now sees herself as a victim of Salinger's romantic intrigue. Sparring with a critic at her Web site, Joyce styled herself "a woman sought out at 18 by a man 35 years her senior, who promised to love her forever and asked her to forswear all else to come and live with him," blah blah blah. This represents a turnaround from previous characterizations of the Salinger interlude: "After I left [Salinger], it seemed like I'd been in 'Lost Horizon,' " Joyce told the BostonGlobe in 1992. "There was no place on earth for me to go."

But contradictions abound in Joyce's latest outing. A few weeks ago, she informed the New York Times that she decided to tell the Salinger story now because her daughter recently turned 18. That was Joyce's age when J.D. summoned her to his hilltop aerie in Cornish, N.H. Yet when I sought her out for comment shortly before she concocted her sob story for the Times, Joyce told me she whipped up the Salinger submission to fulfill a contractual obligation to St. Martin's. And she complained about the size of the advance.

Forced by a cruel publishing house to give up her last, cherished family jewel at a fire-sale price. Doesn't that just say everything about the times we live in? I think there's a piece there, Joyce.

Alex Beam is a columnist at the Boston Globe. His e-mail address is beam@globe.com.