Joanna Rakoff writes of her year at New York literary agency, J.D. Salinger

06/01/2014 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:24 AM

“My Salinger Year” by Joanna Rakoff (Alfred A. Knopf, 272 pages, $25.95)

It’s well past the three-quarters mark in her memoir about spending a year in New York’s oldest literary agency that Joanna Rakoff actually reads a book by J.D. Salinger, even though she has been sending out form letters telling his fans that he cannot reply to their adoring and/or desperate missives.

But once she spends a long weekend devouring everything from “Franny and Zooey” to “The Catcher in the Rye,” she has a moment of enlightenment, understanding at last what all the fuss is about:

“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.”

That may be the high point of the book for many readers, because “My Salinger Year” turns out to be more about Rakoff than Salinger, even though she talks to the notoriously reclusive writer on the phone a few times and eventually meets him face-to-face at the agency.

A coming-of-age tale, the memoir seems to search for its emotional center as Rakoff recounts her rocky, 20-something life with her distant, socialist and likely philandering boyfriend in their unheated, sinkless apartment in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood.

Though the details of this part of her life sound overly familiar – how many would-be writers get their start in down-and-out conditions? – she finds her voice after finally reading Salinger.

She also finds her calling after a year in the agency, which is to write, not represent writers.

Fresh out of graduate school in London in 1996, Rakoff arrives in New York on her parents’ doorstep in search of a job. She wants to pursue a career as a poet, but needs money to pave the way. So an employment agency places her as the assistant to the president of a stuffy, Luddite, old-school literary agency whose biggest client is Salinger.

And old the agency is. While the rest of the publishing world is busy discovering computers and taking its first steps into the Internet age, Rakoff’s employer shuns such innovations, sticking with Dictaphones and IBM Selectric typewriters in the dimly lit, darkly furnished, cavernous rooms of the agency.

Rakoff adapts well to her surroundings, however, doing menial work for even more menial pay. What keeps her going, for one thing, is that in her role as Salinger’s official rejection writer, she can tap into the lives of some of his biggest admirers, adding her personal touches to the dog-eared form letter the agency has been posting for decades, stating that no fan mail can be passed on to Salinger.

For another, she has a key role in the potential publication of Salinger’s final book, his near-novella-length story “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which appeared in its entirety, complete with typos, in the New Yorker magazine in 1965.

The publishing deal falls through when the owner of the small press unwittingly violates one of Salinger’s stringent rules of engagement, but this part of Rakoff’s memoir provides crucial insights into the bookselling world: how easily deals can germinate then go awry.

Still, like Salinger, Rakoff’s main job is to say no.

Under strict orders to send all calls from “Jerry” directly to her boss, to never give out details of his personal life, to fend off publishers, critics and would-be interviewers, Rakoff meekly obeys. Her demeanor is so agreeable, so unlikely to express dissension or dissatisfaction that we have to wonder whether time has erased some of the emotional resonance of her past.

She recognizes that she and her old friends have little in common, that she can (barely) survive on cheap Manhattan lunches, that her old boyfriend in California is still angry with her, that her parents are as penny-pinching as her employer. A few of these revelations result in tears, but for the most part, Rakoff records her experiences in an even-handed, deadpan manner.

Then she rushes to an uncomfortably abrupt conclusion where she casts off the smoke-filled chambers of the agency for a liberating life as a poet and novelist, married to a new man, and in the end, mourning the death of Salinger.

On balance, I think that Rakoff wanted to show that she had learned Franny’s big lesson in her eponymous novella: to be her true self, no matter what others say.

That certainly is a noble goal, but without Salinger as her touchstone, Rakoff’s atmospheric memoir would be one in a million. Indeed, without Salinger in her story, we, too, might have been tempted to just say no.

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