A year with J.D. Salinger | Bleader

A year with J.D. Salinger

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  • Alfred A. Knopf
There's one small subgenre of literature that I find particularly endearing: the young woman working in publishing book. When I was younger, I viewed those books as guides to life. Even after they stopped being useful, at least to me since my own career as a young woman in publishing was more or less a disaster, I still enjoy them as wish fulfillment. How nice it would be to be young and living in New York and surrounded by books all day (but without having to live in the crappy apartment and deal with the pretentious young men and condescending bosses and the horrible, soul-crushing boredom of being an administrative assistant)!

I suspect Joanna Rakoff is a devotee of the genre as well. Her very good 2009 novel, A Fortunate Age, was a takeoff on Mary McCarthy's The Group, the original college-grads-in-New-York novel (among many other things), and her new book, My Salinger Year, a memoir of the year she spent as an assistant to J.D. Salinger's literary agent, both pays tribute to the young-woman-in-publishing books that came before—the introductory chapter is an homage to the opening of The Best of Everything, Rona Jaffe's 1958 classic that probably launched thousands of editorial careers—and is a worthy addition to the list.

In 1996, Rakoff was 23 and at loose ends: she'd just returned from London, where she'd been studying literature, and abandoned both the academic life and her sweet, funny college boyfriend in order to live in New York with a Norman Mailer-wannabe named Don. An acquaintance at a party slips her the phone number of an employment agency that specializes in placing editorial assistants; within a few days, she's secured a job at a venerable literary agency where the most pertinent question at the interview had been, "You can type? On a typewriter?"

But on her first day of work, the purpose of her job becomes clear. "So," her boss tells her,

"we need to talk about Jerry. People are going to call and ask for his address, his phone number. . . . But you must never"—behind those huge, heavy glasses her eyes narrowed and she leaned across the desk, like a caricature of a gangster, her voice taking on a frightening edge—"never, never, never give out his address or phone number. Don't tell them anything."

"I didn't know who Jerry was," Rakoff admits. "This was 1996 and the first Jerry that came to mind was Seinfeld, who presumably wasn't a client of the Agency, though one never knew, I supposed." It's not until Rakoff takes a look at the bookshelves outside her boss's office, full of copies of The Catcher in the Rye and Nine Stories, that she finally realizes who "Jerry" is.

Astonishingly, Rakoff had never read any of his books. And she won't, until about three-quarters through her Salinger year, when she will devour his complete canon over the course of Labor Day weekend and be moved to tears. But she will get to know him over the phone—their relationship takes a giant leap forward when Rakoff tells him she's a poet; Salinger's feelings about poets are roughly analogous to Holden Caulfield's feelings about children—and it turns out 1996 is an unusually eventful year for the reclusive writer. A small publisher in Virginia enters into negotiations with him to bring out a new edition of his long story "Hapworth 16, 1924", which leads to much excitement within the Agency.

But Rakoff's main Salinger-related task is responding to his mail, deeply personal letters from devoted fans. She's encouraged to use a form letter originally composed in the 1960s, but she can't resist writing her own replies, expressing sympathy for war veterans and offering advice to bitter junior high school students (who don't appreciate it). Eventually she comes to understand why Salinger doesn't answer letters anymore. "For years, Hugh told me, he'd tried to respond to his fans. But the emotional toll grew too great. It was, in a way, already too great for me."

Rakoff never refers to her boss or the Agency by their proper names. This information is easily Googleable, but here, in this review, I'll stick to the conventions Rakoff has established. A mere name would rob the boss of her dignity and her intimidating boss-ness, and it would completely fail to truly convey the cultish nature of the Agency and the awe it inspires in its employees. This is a place that is so devoted to its own past that it still requires its employees to use the same typewriters and arcane filing system from the 1950s. (Perhaps Rakoff's life is not that much different from The Best of Everything after all.) One of the most exciting events of the year Rakoff spent there was the introduction of a single computer, to be shared by everyone. (The boss requests a black case, but changes her mind when she realizes that taupe, while unsightly, is far less expensive.)

In her off hours, Rakoff deals with her awful boyfriend, their even worse apartment (which, at one point, nearly blows up), a severe lack of money, growing apart from her childhood and college friends, and her own desire to be a writer herself, as opposed to selling the work of other writers. It's a familiar story, after all, made interesting by its peculiar and particular details. Rakoff maintains a sufficient detachment from her younger self to tell it with a minimum of self-dramatization and self-pity. Mistakes were made, she admits, but they were all her own. That's what you learn when you grow up.

Joanna Rakoff will be reading from My Salinger Year tonight at 6:30 PM at The Book Stall, 811 Elm, Winnetka, 847-446-8880, bookstall.indiebound.com.

Aimee Levitt writes about books on Fridays.

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