- - Thursday, June 19, 2014

By Joanna Rakoff
Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95, 272 pages

“My Salinger Year” is a slightly fictionalized memoir of a year author Joanna Rakoff spent working for a top New York literary agency. It’s 1996. She’s just dropped out of graduate school because she wants to produce literature, not analyze it. She’s happy to join the horde of similar hopefuls and work for next to nothing as long as it’s with books — but at a literary agency? She’s not even sure what they do there.

She finds that she spends most of her time typing letters from the Dictaphone — really typing on a Selectric, which as her boss explains, “Is very different from using a computer.” Indeed this venerable agency has no computer since its venerable boss dislikes them, and only agrees to buy one — just one — several weeks later. Of course, no computers means no emails, so all those carefully typed letters with their multiple carbons were vital. How odd that now seems. Yet, it was less than 20 years ago.

Much else was odd, too. On her first day the boss calls her into her office, saying “We need to talk about Jerry . People are going to call and ask for his address, his phone number . But you must never, never, never, never give out his address or phone number. Just get off the phone as quickly as possible.” En route back to her desk she spots “The Catcher in the Rye” on the bookshelves, and realizes that J.D. Salinger is an agency client. The penny drops: “Oh that Jerry.”

One of her duties will be to answer the reclusive author’s fan mail. There’s a boiler plate letter she can use, explaining that “Mr. Salinger does not wish to receive mail from his readers. Thus, we cannot pass your kind note on to him.” Sometimes, though she finds herself answering a letter, like the one from a boy in Winston-Salem who described himself as getting “quiet emotional.”

Did he mean “quite emotional?” Maybe not. The problems of being “quiet emotional” are familiar to her. She has met and moved in with another aspiring writer, Don. He’s a piece of work. What is she doing with him? Also, what about her college boyfriend, who is living in California where she had planned to join him until she found she couldn’t leave New York? More generally, what about her life?

One weekend — eight months into her job — she takes copies of all Salinger’s books from the office and reads them. She had managed to dodge them in school and college, so now they hit her with a force that explains those mountains of fan mail. Like so many of the letter writers, she felt that Salinger had somehow “tunneled” into her brain.

This sense of intimate connection, she realized, explained why correspondents often confided their anxieties and sorrows to Salinger, and why, too, the emotional toll of this would be so great that he would refuse to read their letters. As for herself, she sobbed with relief and recognition when she realized that there was “Someone else who was trying to figure out how to live in the world.”

The author is almost four-fifths of the way through “My Year with Salinger” before she describes her first encounter with his fiction. She has let her story unfold like a peony: a hard and seemingly uninspired bud at first, but expanding and stretching forth its layers of bloom as she learns about the agency’s business, tussles with the vagaries of her relationship with Don, and tries to fathom the choices she and her friends and colleagues make.

With this rich trove of material her book is at times funny, warm, emotional — a sort of personal bildungsroman that powerfully evokes both the angst of early adulthood and life in literary New York in the mid-1990s.

It is also a tribute to J.D.Salinger. Joanna Rakoff knew him as the man who opened his phone calls with “I have a question for you.” He was pleasant, friendly, sometimes rueful. He even paid a rare visit to New York, and she met him in the office. And she ends her book rejecting the idea that readers grow out of him. While agreeing that his work speaks to the themes of adolescence, she insists “Salinger’s stories, to a one, are anatomies of loss, every inch of them.”

The Glass family that he writes about is “a family in mourning, never to recover.” His topic is “a world in mourning, never to recover.” Here’s a reading of Salinger that pinpoints his topic, explains the appeal of his stories, and gives Joanna Rakoff’s own book its depth and resonance.

Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.

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