My Salinger Year: Joanna Rakoff

When I first began seeing notices of My Salinger Year in literary supplements, I flipped the page. Somewhere in my mind I confused the writer with the writer of an article published more than a decade ago in Esquire. A first person account of a journalist going to meet Salinger; almost 4000 words spun out on how the journalist didn’t get to meet Salinger. What cheek I thought! Now a whole book about that inconsequence. If this isn’t ludicrous, what is? And especially as I am someone who isn’t as enamoured by Salinger as the greater part of the world seem to be. In fact, while my book shelves house 3 Salinger titles, I haven’t yet got around to reading them.

But I was wrong, of course. This wasn’t that writer, and instead My Salinger Year is that perfect literary piece of non-fiction; a partially impressionistic memoir and a partly anecdotal account of a young woman starting out as an assistant at a literary agency in New York and one that has Salinger as its client. Writers love it; reading about other writers. Or at least I do. To know what goes on in the minds of other writers as they deal with their everyday and their art. And so could anything make for more delightful reading?

Joanna Rakoff moves to New York City as a 23 year old in 1996 and takes up a job as a literary assistant [read that as handmaiden] in a literary agency that handles J.D. Salinger’s work. This isn’t the NYC of the movies or books. Instead there is an almost surreal feeling of a time warp as Joanna Rakoff works in a wood paneled office with rugs on the floor and where dictaphones and typewriters reign.[ In fact, during the course of her year there, a desktop is installed after much pondering and discussion.] And at night she goes back to a tiny apartment in Brooklyn where she lives with her boyfriend. It is so rundown that they don’t have a sink and so have to do their dishes in the tub. Don the boyfriend though he does call her by that delightful child endearment Buba is both patronizing and a bit of an orangutan with socialist leanings.

Joanna learns her job as she goes along but her greatest task of course is answering the voluminous fan mail that Salinger receives from various parts of the world.

There is a form letter:

Dear Miss So-and-So,

Many thanks for your recent letter to J.D. Salinger. As you may know, Mr Salinger does not wish to receive mail from his readers. Thus, we cannot pass your kind note on to him. We thank you for your interest in Mr. Salinger’s books.

The Agency

Joanna Rakoff doesn’t mention the name of her agency or her boss who is Salinger’s agent but in this age of the all-knowing Google god, it isn’t very hard to find out that the Agency is the Harold Ober Associates, and the person she was hired to assist was Phyllis Westberg.

However Joanna finds that she is unable to respond with the form letter in many cases and begins writing back personalized little notes. Meanwhile there is great excitement as Salinger decides to publish an old story Hapworth as a stand alone volume with Roger Lathbury of Orchises Press, a small publishing house that published poetry.

There is much to-ing and fro-ing and in the course of the year much changes. Joanna Rakoff works on her poetry; ponders on her relationship with Don; and finally discovers the reason why the mails don’t stop flowing in for Salinger. ‘Have you read Salinger? Very likely you have….Maybe, like the boy from Winston-Salem, you thought about Holden whenever things became too much and he calmed you down, made you grin.’

I have always enjoyed the literary memoir as a form. But Joana Rakoff’s My Salinger Year goes beyond sheer reading pleasure. As she explores the literary world she is now part of, she examines her own life and allows us to derive a certain voyeuristic delight. From becoming responsible for her student loan to splurging on a sandwich she can barely afford to reading a letter Don has written to another girl about how ‘he couldn’t stop thinking about her beautiful brown shoulders’.

Rather like Nicholson’s A Box of Matches or Helene Hanff’s 89 Charing Cross, My Salinger Year is as much about the writer as it is about the world she inhabits.

There is a refreshing perspective that is neither gauche nor obsequious. Even her despair is described with a certain reticence that makes it that much more heart breaking. By the end of the Salinger year, you so want Joanna to escape her present and do the things she really wants to do. Like work on her poetry.



Publishers: Bloomsbury Circus

Pages: 249

Price: Rs 399

Reviewed in: Asian Age 2014


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