My Salinger Year
Last year brought a resurgence of interest in J.D. Salinger’s life and career --- from the buzz over three previously unpublished short stories leaked to the Internet to the double whammy of David Shields’s and Shane Salerno’s book and documentary film, both titled, aptly enough, Salinger. Unfortunately, the hype surrounding these pseudo-events did little to disguise the general sense of disappointment regarding them.
Anyone picking up Joanna Rakoff’s memoir, MY SALINGER YEAR, expecting to find out something new about J.D. Salinger or his work will be sorely disappointed. What they will find instead is the tepid story of a kid fresh out of grad school who comes to New York City to finally figure out that she wants to be a writer.
"...the tepid story of a kid fresh out of grad school who comes to New York City to finally figure out that she wants to be a writer."
So where does Salinger come in? Upon coming back to New York from London after having, as Rakoff puts it, “dropped out of graduate school --- or finished my master’s, depending on how you looked at it,” she winds up by chance with a job at a literary agency, working as the assistant to Salinger’s agent. She coyly never names the agency or the literary agent, referring to them respectively instead as “the Agency” and “my boss” throughout the book. Her job requires her to do a lot of typing, be it transcribing from Dictaphone tapes to continually retyping the form letter sent to fans seeking to make contact with Salinger. (Although the book is set in 1996 and computer technology was in place at the time, the Agency prided itself on being old-fashioned and used a carbon copy for the form letter.) Aside from that, Rakoff answers the phone, fielding calls from other writers on her Agency’s roster. Rakoff is told that if Salinger, or “Jerry” as he’s called around the office, happens to call, she’s under strict orders not to attempt to make conversation. She is to immediately put him through to her boss. If her boss isn’t there, she is to take a message.
And that scant description constitutes the totality of Rakoff’s engagement with Salinger. Yes, Jerry calls a handful of times, and yes, she speaks with him, but most of their conversations are mundane, usually along the lines of Hello, how are you? and Well, nice to chat with you. Jerry makes an appearance at the office once and Rakoff shakes his hand, but he’s then quickly whisked away and she never sees him again. And for the bulk of the book, Rakoff has not read a single word of Salinger’s, having deemed his writing, “insufferably cute, aggressively quirky, precious.” Once she does read him, of course, everything changes --- predictably enough.
Too much of the book is devoted instead to Rakoff’s doomed-to-fail relationship with her two-dimensional boyfriend, Don, a macho writer who freely spouts clichéd opinions about what great writing is while not only sponging off Rakoff but cheating on her. This being a coming-of-age story, Rakoff also finds herself growing apart from her college friends and feeling lost and directionless in her own life. The over-familiarity of the material is too much for Rakoff’s uninspired prose to transcend. Even as she begins to assert herself, be it through championing a writer from the slush pile at work, personally responding to some of Salinger’s fan mail, or sending her own poetry out into the world and having it meet with success, Rakoff can’t overcome the limitations of a vanity project that, without the good fortune of a connection to Salinger, might not exist. And given Salinger’s propensity for privacy and controlling every aspect of his legacy, one can well imagine how he might feel about the existence of such a book with his name on it.
Reviewed by Damian Van Denburgh on June 20, 2014