“My Salinger Year” by Joanna Rakoff. Knopf, 2014. $25.95.
Joanna Rakoff’s nonfiction debut chronicles her year spent as the assistant to the head of a literary agency in Manhattan in the late 1990s. The agency’s most important client? J.D. Salinger, hence the title.
A bright and eager 20-something, the bookish Rakoff is thrilled at landing a job at the prestigious Agency, as the never-named company is referred to throughout the book. Imagine her surprise when she arrives in the dimly lit office to find a dusty old Selectric typewriter and a stack of tapes waiting for her to listen to on a Dictaphone (remember those? I didn’t think so.) This, in 1996.
The office is so old-fashioned that by the end of Rakoff’s time with the agency, her boss’ one concession to the encroaching digital age is the addition of a sole computer for the entire office to share.
Far from what she’d thought would be the glamorous world of publishing, Rakoff spends her days transcribing her boss’s dictated letters and sorting through the Agency’s most important client’s fan mail. When she started working there, Rakoff had yet to read any of Salinger’s work, so she’s at first surprised by the dozens of letters that arrive each week for him.
Once she reads the heartfelt messages from frustrated teenagers à la Holden Caulfield to aging veterans like Salinger himself, she realizes the profound effect novels such as “The Catcher in the Rye” and “Franny and Zooey” had on his readers. She decides to write personalized replies to some — utterly ignoring Agency protocol of sending form letters to fans — which leads to interesting consequences.
Rakoff also touches on the post-graduate ennui she and some of her friends experienced and details her life outside of work, living in Brooklyn — before it was cool — with a tiresome man. Luckily she finally realizes what a nightmare their relationship is (jealous “writer” boyfriend with socialist leanings and an absurdly healthy ego, need I say more?) and strikes out on her own.
A highlight of the book is when Rakoff settles in to read all of Salinger’s novels one lonely weekend. She captures perfectly the transformative experience of reading Salinger for the first time, discovering that his novels are not just for angst-filled teenagers like his beloved Holden: “Salinger was not cutesy.
His work was not nostalgic. These were not fairy tales about child geniuses traipsing 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.”
Far from a gimmicky tell-all about her brush with literary fame — although her retelling of the phone calls she received from the famously reclusive Salinger and their one meeting in the flesh are exciting to read about — “My Salinger Year” is a lovely ode to books, reading and New York. It’s also an engrossing read about a young woman finding her way in the world, and at a mere 249 pages, I found it woefully short.