Joanna Rakoff / Bloomsbury
Joanna Rakoff / Bloomsbury In her memoir, Joanna Rakoff delivers a charming account of the year she spent working for the New York literary agency that represented author JD Salinger. Her first ‘real job’ at 23, Rakoff finds herself stepping back in time. The year was 1996; Rakoff uses a Selectric typewriter and Dictaphone to transcribe letters from her boss, who refers to photocopies as ‘carbons’. Much of her workday is spent reading fan letters addressed to Salinger. Never having read his work herself, she begins to understand the impact of his writing on readers of all ages, from teens encountering Catcher in the Rye for the first time to older veterans re-reading Nine Stories. Following the rules, Rakoff mainly replies with a form letter stating that Mr Salinger does not wish to be contacted. Yet several times, she feels compelled to provide a personal reply, to enlightening and humorous consequences. Throughout her year at the agency, Rakoff conveys the simple thrills of being surrounded by shelves of revered classics and the surprising delight of discovering new literary talent. Rakoff captures the rush and joy of young womanhood, as well as its uncertainties. She excels at depicting her youthful, clueless self, baffled by her boss and terrified when Salinger actually rings her. She is also uncertain about larger questions: who are her friends? Does she want to become a literary agent or a writer herself? Why did she give up one of the most important relationships of her life? Rakoff still loves her college boyfriend, who moved to California, and yet is living with Don, an overbearing communist writer some years her senior. She chooses to remain very close to the story, not giving us her mature reflections on these relationships, but instead highlighting her passitivity. Don is clearly not a good boyfriend, and her contempt for him is unveiled. Yet Rakoff does not chide her former self, but lets the story play out as she gradually gains confidence and poise. Rakoff’s writing is often lyrical and funny, her descriptions apt and precise. The story itself, though, is not very large. She is on the very periphery of Salinger’s life, speaking to him on the phone several times and meeting him only once. She hadn’t even read his works until nearly the end of her year working for the agency. Much of the story involves intrigue over a deal that never eventuates. There are long passages describing her walking through the Waldorf Astoria or Central Park. These scenes hint at some larger consequence that also never comes to be. In the ending, the conditions of her current life, particularly her love life, are left muddled, and she leaves many pertinent questions unanswered. There are many beautiful moments in My Salinger Year that truly capture the romance of being young in New York City, of striving, of being poor, of figuring out one’s life. For anyone interested in recent literary history, or book publishing from the point of view of an ingénue, this will be an enjoyable read.