Author Joanna Rakoff recounts the year she spent working as the assistant to J.D. Salinger’s literary agent in her new memoir, My Salinger Year.
Rakoff’s memoir opens in late 1995, when she decides that she’d rather write her own poetry and not “analyze other people’s poetry.” After making that fateful decision, she leaves her college boyfriend and drops out of her graduate program in London, England, and returns to New York, where she moves in with an aspiring writer named Don. A chance encounter with a friend of a friend at a Christmas party leads to a referral to a local placement agency. Rakoff visits the agency and soon lands an entry-level job as the assistant to a well-established and well-respected literary agent.
She is unfamiliar with the Agency, as she refers to it throughout the book, but she’s quickly enchanted by the peculiar and archaic office atmosphere. At a time when computers, email, and the World Wide Web were becoming ubiquitous, the Agency still relied on Selectric typewriters and Dictaphones, and kept submission records on pink index cards. Rakoff’s early assignments are unremarkable, consisting mainly of transcribing her boss’s letters to clients and publishers. Then comes the day when her boss tells her, “We need to talk about Jerry.” Jerry is a special client who fiercely guards his privacy. Joanna’s boss warns her that she will receive calls from students and reporters or producers trying to speak to Jerry or secure the film rights to his work. Joanna is admonished that no matter how persuasive the caller is, she must never give out Jerry’s address or phone number. At first, Joanna thinks that “Jerry” is the comedian Jerry Seinfeld, but on her way out of her boss’s office she spots a bookshelf containing The Catcher in the Rye, Franny and Zooey, and Nine Stories and realizes that her boss represents the reclusive author J.D. Salinger.
Although Joanna was familiar with Salinger’s work, she had never actually read any of his books. Over the course of her year at the Agency, she not only falls in love with Salinger’s work, she also becomes fascinated by the letters Salinger receives from fans around the world, including a teenage boy from Winston-Salem, N.C., whose letters mimic the narrative voice of Holden Caulfield; a World War II veteran from Nebraska; and a girl whose teacher tells her she’ll raise her failing grade if she writes to J.D. Salinger and receives a response from him.
In addition to handling Salinger’s correspondence, and the occasional phone call from Salinger to her boss, Joanna also becomes involved in a curious chapter of Salinger’s publishing history. In 1996, much to the surprise of his agent, Salinger agreed to let Roger Lathbury, a professor and owner of a small publishing house called Orchises Press, publish his short story Hapworth 16, 1924 as a stand-alone book. Salinger developed an instant rapport with Lathbury, and publication of Hapworth was scheduled for January 1997; however, the deal fell apart as quickly as it came together.
Rakoff’s narrative deftly balances descriptions of the Agency and the publishing world of the late ‘90s with her own experiences as a young adult adjusting to life after college and her first real job. Her longtime friends are getting married and moving out of the city; she’s dealing with the fallout of leaving a secure relationship for one that’s a bit more tumultuous; and she’s also learning about the limits of an entry-level salary once you factor in student loan repayment and credit card bills.
Fast-paced and often poignant, My Salinger Year is an engaging look at first jobs, the publishing industry, and the powerful lure of literature.
Check the WRL catalog for My Salinger Year.