Writing a memoir about working at the literary agency that represented J.D. Salinger without having the memoir be about Salinger sounds impossible. Yet Joanna Rakoff does it, and does it well, in My Salinger Year. Set in late ’90s Manhattan, the book opens with Rakoff working as an assistant in a well-known literary agency that represents “Jerry.” Initially assuming the Jerry in question is Seinfeld, Rakoff only realizes which Jerry it is after she notices the spines of Catcher, Nine Stories, and the others on the agency bookshelves.
Young Rakoff is given the task of dealing with Salinger’s fan mail, which he receives by the bundle and leaves to the agency. Despite it being nearly the new millennium, the literary agency still uses typewriters, so the task is menial and monumental. At some point Rakoff starts responding to the letters on an emotional level. To several letter-writers – a war veteran, a high-school student – she veers from the form letter and crafts her own responses.
When we meet her, Rakoff has come to New York, given up her dream of being a poet for reasons that are unclear, and moved in with a new boyfriend, Don (unbeknownst to her parents), who is an aspiring, frustrated (is there any other kind?) writer. Don is what Holden would call a phony, but Rakoff is stuck with him for much of the book. It’s frustrating that their stagnant relationship doesn’t cause Rakoff, the author, to reflect more on herself. Rakoff finds a letter from Don to an unknown girl. Don chooses not to take Rakoff to an out-of-town wedding. Don condescends to her about he writing. So when Rakoff meets Franny Glass through Salinger’s books and identifies strongly with her, the reader wants to breathe a sigh of relief. Finally. The reader hopes Rakoff will start to differentiate herself from Don and develop a sense of self-worth.
Rakoff and Franny want the same thing: “To not be the person the world is telling her to be, the girl who must bury her intelligence in her letters to Lane, who must compromise herself in order to live.” Rakoff had never read Salinger before, and her adult reaction to his work is refreshing, compared to the overzealous, ubiquitous, angst-filled love that adolescents typically have for him, usually about Holden Caulfield. “Salinger was not cutesy. His work was not nostalgic. These were not fairy tales about child geniuses traipsing through the streets of Old New York. Salinger was nothing like I’d thought. Nothing. Salinger was brutal. Brutal and funny and precise. I loved him. I loved it all.”
Salinger certainly makes his appearances in the book. He calls the agency multiple times to check on the publication of “Hapworth 16, 1924” as a novella. The project never comes to fruition, but he strikes up a phone relationship with “Suzanne,” as he first calls Rakoff. They bond over writing poetry, and as she shouts goodbye into the phone each time (he was hard of hearing), the reader gets a palpable sense of Salinger’s gentle manner with her. But when the man himself finally comes to the agency, and Rakoff meets him – by then he knows her correct name – it turns out to be one of the briefest, least important scenes in the book.
Rakoff’s gentle, quiet man is very different from the abrasive, emotionally abusive writer who fixates on young girls in Shane Salerno’s film Salinger. Both the book and the film show the premium that Salinger placed on privacy, his perfectionism, and the anxiety of those around him to please him. But taking the two together offers a rare glimpse of the private, unguarded side of Salinger. Within the literary agency, he is among people he trusts, and Rakoff depicts his vulnerability, his humanity, in a very real and vivid way.
With Salinger’s previously unpublished writings slated for publication between 2015 and 2020, Rakoff’s memoir provides an insider’s look at a publishing project that almost happened. What if “Hapworth” had been published as a novella? Could it have survived, given that after it was published as a story in The New Yorker, it was criticized as being unreadable and self-obsessed? How might its publication as a novella have affected Salinger’s legacy?
The backstory of the book left many questions unanswered, and the end of Rakoff’s time at the agency wrapped up quickly, leaving the reader feeling a bit lost. I would have liked a bit more explanation of how Rakoff got saddled with Don. Still, Rakoff’s debut memoir is fun and engaging. Her descriptions of trying to live in New York as a twentysomething with barely any money are agonizing and true. The parallels she draws between the themes in Salinger’s writing and the issues in her own life avoid cliché, and in the end, it is a coming-of-age story in which Salinger, both on and off the page, is a significant influence.
– Jaime Rochelle Herndon is graduating with her MFA in creative nonfiction from Columbia University and is a contributing writer to Book Riot. She works as a freelance writer and editor, including medical writing, thanks to her MPH in maternal-child health. She is a promiscuous reader and spends way too much time and money in bookstores. Her twitter handle is @IvyTarHeelJaime.