A Warmer, More Approachable Salinger: On Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year

Many writers have had a Salinger year, a period in which they read every word Jerome David Salinger ever published. It’s a common effect Salinger has on writers and readers. Once bitten by the Salinger bug, the reader devours his entire oeuvre. While Joanna Rakoff’s new memoir My Salinger Year does include her voracious consumption of all Salinger’s books, it chronicles so much more than fandom and an investigation of what makes J.D Salinger one of the most adored writers in American history.

Three main threads are woven throughout Rakoff’s memoir: the author’s own personal story of living, working, and managing a relationship in the city; the beginning of the technological revolution of the publishing world; and a nuanced if incomplete account of who J.D Salinger was as a person, independent of his reputation.

In the first two pages, Rakoff reveals that in her early twenties, she was a literary citizen with dreams of working in the magical world of publishing. The book’s opening section, titled “All of Us Girls,” details the uniformity of young girls breaking into the industry. These fresh recruits dress like Sylvia Plath in tidy sweaters and slim skirts, live in cheap neighborhoods far from their lofty jobs, and daydream of rich meals while subsisting on deli food. What these young women have in common, beyond the superficial, is an aspiration to ascend the literary ladder, to become someone important—an editor, an agent, or even a bona fide writer.

In 1996, Rakoff accepts a secretarial position at Harold Ober Associates, one of the oldest and most storied literary agencies in New York, which she refers to throughout the memoir as simply the Agency. The Agency represents several clients of varying prestige, including J.D Salinger. While her daily routine consists mainly of typing and transcribing, one of her ancillary tasks is replying to Salinger’s fan mail. Despite her entry-level position, she soon finds herself in love with the Agency’s culture, likening it to an Ivy League or a religious order, where membership is so exclusive one cannot help but feel chosen.

Rakoff’s narrative dexterity is remarkable, whether describing her emotional state or the physical landscape of Madison Avenue. She draws New York in the mid-1990s into sharp focus, particularly the Agency’s office. Detailing what she loves about her work environment, she lists “the soft, consoling glow cast by the lamps; the hush of my co-workers’ feet on soft carpet, the leather armchair and dark bookcases.” Set during the dawn of the internet—a period when people are just beginning to create personal email accounts—the Agency deliberates the need for an office computer, and finally agrees to purchase one. To contemporary readers, the Agency’s hesitancy to embrace technology verges on hilarious when Joanna’s boss shouts, “I don’t know what an electronic book is, but I’m not giving away the rights to it.”

Rakoff’s introduction to Salinger comes not from reading his books, which she hasn’t done when she starts at the Agency, but from reading his fan mail. As expected, Salinger fan letters are plentiful, raw, and written by people all over the world. Letters pour in from the U.S., Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Japan, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, and elsewhere. Celebrities and other established writers send tender words about how Salinger’s work changed or soothed their lives.

The Agency’s policy regarding Salinger’s fan mail is strict: Each letter receives a form response. But the task of responding is not completely rote, not since Mark David Chapman murdered John Lennon, then sat down and read The Catcher in the Rye while waiting for police to arrest him. Presumably, Chapman wrote to Salinger via the Agency and no one paid much notice. Rakoff hints that one of her predecessors likely sent Chapman a form response, thanking him for his interest in Salinger’s work while maintaining a fence around the author.

The emotional rawness in Salinger’s mail will remind some readers of Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, in which a newspaper columnist is inundated with letters of personal catastrophe. Such livewire emotion is ubiquitous in Salinger’s mail, and it’s not long before Rakoff begins personally responding, going so far as to sign her own name at the end of her responses. She becomes proficient in a skill she refers to as “What would Salinger say.” For her, that translates into offering tough advice and honest assessments. What she never bargains for is that these fans will write back. A handful of fans do, and they are not appreciative of Rakoff’s proverbial two cents. An especially scathing reply rages, “Your name is so ridiculous that I’m pretty certain it’s fake.”

A fair amount of the memoir is devoted to Rakoff’s romantic relationship with a man named Don, a socialist with immature friends. He is, of course, toiling away on a novel. While Rakoff is a skilled storyteller, Don’s subplot fails to engage. It’s obvious the relationship is dead on arrival, and unclear why Joanna is so daft in love. Could it be a product of being in one’s twenties? The lack of affection between Joanna and Don is apparent, yet their tepid relationship spans almost the entire book.

Rakoff’s frustrations with Don as a person and mediocre writer start to simmer when he tries to sell his novel. While explaining that David Foster Wallace and Don write in somewhat similar styles, she stresses, “[Wallace’s sentences] jumped off the page. Don’s sentences seemed to bore further into the page. They obscured rather than revealed.” Soon after, Salinger’s writing becomes the nail in the coffin of Rakoff’s doomed relationship with Don.

Rakoff divulges rather early in the book that she had never read Salinger because

I was not interested in characters with names like Boo Boo and Zooey. I was not   interested in hyper-articulate seven-year-olds who quoted from the Bhagavad   Gita. Even the name of stories seemed juvenile and too clever-clever: “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut.”

But when Don leaves for a weekend to attend a wedding without her, Rakoff finally caves. She tears through Salinger’s oeuvre, noting Franny Glass’s struggles parallel her own.

Throughout the narrative, Rakoff emphasizes that for many in the literary worlds, books equal life. To read and become involved in stories is to be alive, to make connections, and to learn how to be. To encounter certain books at certain moments in one’s life can prove pivotal. Through reading Franny and Zooey, then Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour—an Introduction, Nine Stories and finally The Catcher in the Rye—all in one weekend—Rakoff comes to realize she does not miss Don’s presence. She was wrong about needing him and wrong about Salinger. She concedes, “Salinger was brutal. Brutal and funny and precise. I loved him.” In a sense, her love shifts from Don to Salinger, from someone who is indifferent to her emotional states to a writer who mirrors them back to her on the page.

Rakoff’s acquaintanceship with J.D Salinger himself is the most rewarding aspect of the memoir. It starts innocently one day when she answers the phone, and he, notoriously hard of hearing, shouts questions at her. With time, theirs becomes a pensive exchange, occurring almost entirely over the telephone.

During one of their early conversations, Salinger asks her “Do you write poetry?” When she says she does, he replies, “I’m really glad to hear that.” Later, he asks if she is maintaining her morning ritual of writing poetry before work. The Salinger Rakoff depicts is warm, compassionate, reasonable—a far cry from the Cornish recluse many tried to photograph on his walk to the post office. Ironically, the attitudes many held about Salinger—that he was a genius whose privacy could be stolen in bits—is precisely why he absconded from the press, critics, and his fans. The number of people he could trust to not exploit him, to not profit off him, was virtually zero.

Both Rakoff and an independent publisher named Roger Lathbury learn the secret of befriending Salinger. When Rakoff and Lathbury commiserate, he confesses, “I didn’t tell him how much I loved his stories… Some instinct, something, told me not to fawn over him, not to tell him he was a genius… so that he can just be himself.”

Rakoff marvels at the plain truth of his answer while also reminding readers of a history long forgotten. We assume talent is a billboard no one can miss, but she highlights the subjectivity of writing by pointing out that someone rejected The Catcher in the Rye. At her fingertips is evidence that another editor had turned down the manuscript before its acceptance by Little, Brown. Salinger wasn’t born a literary god; he became one. The nascent stages of his career began like anyone else’s—he “sat at his desk, trying to figure out what made a story, how to structure a novel, how to be a writer, how to be.” It wasn’t until later that Salinger inspired so many of us to write, guided us to see through the thicket of the world’s phoniness, and, perhaps reluctantly, helped us determine whom we did and did not want to be.

Ursula Villarreal-Moura received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her fiction appears or is forthcoming in CutBank, Emerson Review, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, NANO Fiction, DOGZPLOT, Similar Peaks, and elsewhere. She tweets at @Ursulaofthebook.