Books

Joanna Rakoff
My Salinger Year

Like other works in the small but not statistically insignificant subgenre of Salingerian memoir, My Salinger Year should be approached in full awareness of a wretched operating paradox. These books claim kinship, admit love, announce fellow-feeling with the legendary author, all the while gaily subverting what appears to have been a profound impulse in Salinger’s life. “It is my rather subversive opinion,” he said in 1961, “that a writer’s feelings of anonymity … are the second most valuable property on loan to him during his working years.” To paraphrase Groucho: any author writing a book claiming membership of the Salinger club is one who should be automatically blackballed.

What partly forgives Rakoff’s effort is that she barely knew the man. For a year in the mid-to-late 1990s, the author worked as an assistant to J. D. Salinger’s literary agent, Phyllis Westberg, at the venerable Harold Ober agency in Manhattan. Perhaps a score of brief phone conversations and a momentary office introduction with the reclusive “Jerry” are all her claims to affiliation hang upon. It is not even until the final section of the book that she gets round to reading the great man’s oeuvre. He is a shibboleth, mainly – a password to a certain brand of old-school literary sophistication to which Rakoff, a smart, ambitious young woman who writes poems and makes bad romantic decisions, comes to adore.

So, Salinger in these pages is more of a brand than anything else: the Moleskine notebook of postwar American lit. His presence accessorises a certain kind of existence – artistically aspirant, vestigially Jewish, New York-centric, upper middle-class, financially insecure but only temporarily so, ostensibly feminist yet oddly passive in the face of masculinist bullshit – that curls neatly around its description of a charming formative employment experience.

What the memoir offers is, then, not so much the mild frisson of literary proximity but close witness to the choices made by a young woman at a crossroads in her personal and professional life. Rakoff is 23 when we first meet her and apparently a fledgling poet of talent, if not confidence. She has grown up in suburban comfort, the daughter of a dentist who started out as a comedian and a mother who considers Italian leather shoes a necessity, not a luxury.

Joanna first arrives at the job straight off a master’s degree in London, wearing a fine pair of suede loafers but without even half a clue about the working world. The literary agency (which remains “The Agency” throughout, its real-life staff heavily disguised) is a dusty remnant of the golden days of American publishing. Its wood-panelled rooms are littered with manuscripts and paperback proofs, arcane card-filing systems, electric typewriters and dictaphones, as if some lost floor of Sterling Cooper was discovered miraculously intact towards the turn of the millennium. 

Everyone smokes, of course, and drinks martinis at lunch. Especially Rakoff’s boss, an etiolated Southern belle whose client list is short but spectacular (in reality, Harold Ober is a mausoleum to a certain era in American Letters, managing as it does the literary estates of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Langston Hughes and S. J. Perelman along with that of Salinger). It turns out that the young woman’s job is mainly to keep up with the mass of correspondence sent from all corners of the world to the author of Franny and Zooey and The Catcher in the Rye – none of which is ever meant to reach its intended target.

It is these letters from World War II veterans and contemporary teenagers, hyperventilating lunatics and exquisite social isolates that constitute Rakoff’s claim to intimacy with Salinger. In absorbing their stories she comes to understand the special appeal that Salinger holds for his readers:

He shows us his characters at their most bald, bares their most private thoughts, most telling actions. It’s almost too much. Almost.

And so, of course, his readers felt an urge to write back. To say this is where it hurts or here’s how you made it better.

Over the months, their yearning for connection swells to become a chorus to Rakoff’s solo quest.

It is a sensible approach on the author’s part, since her life outside of The Agency’s precincts is utterly ordinary. There is the inappropriate boyfriend, a middle-class Marxist and would-be novelist with whom Rakoff shares an unheated, kitchen-sinkless apartment at the wrong end of a rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn; and there are the once-close friends who are growing up and away from the metropolis, towards marriages and children and mortgages in the burbs. As her relationship frays and her work at The Agency becomes more absorbing – a potential career, not a secretarial stopgap – the question of whether she should return to her old college boyfriend, and perhaps to her original literary ambitions, becomes ever more fraught.

My Salinger Year does not teach us much about the enigma that was Salinger, even though Rakoff’s year at the firm coincided with a moment when the author flirted with publication of his final, novella-length story “Hapworth 16, 1924”. Nor does Rakoff’s belated engagement with Salinger’s writing generate much critical heat. (Janet Malcolm’s 2001 essay, recently published as “Salinger’s Cigarettes”, packs more insight into 6000 words than Rakoff does over 250 pages.) Its pleasures are more frivolous and vicarious than that. It is Joanna Rakoff’s “Year”, not Jerry’s, after all, and the solipsism of the enterprise tends to bend all light towards her.

But the letters at its heart do bear out Janet Malcolm’s closing observation in her Salinger piece:

Whether Salinger is the rat his girlfriend and daughter say he is will endlessly occupy his well-paid biographers, and cannot change anything in his art. The breaking of ranks in Salinger’s actual family only underscores the unbreakable solidarity of his imaginary one.  AF

Bloomsbury, 272pp, $27.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 21, 2014 as "My Salinger Year, Joanna Rakoff ". Subscribe here.