New York, 1995, and newly graduated 23-year-old Joanna Rakoff has deserted her ‘nice college boyfriend’ and has moved into a slope-floored, unheated apartment in New York with domineering Don – a Marxist, aspiring writer, and everyday arsehole.
Although she dreams of becoming a poet, Rakoff takes a job as an assistant at the literary agency that represents J. D. Salinger. The ‘Agency’ is from another era – plush wood-panelled offices complete with Dictaphones and typewriters; old-time agents doing business their way, including martini lunches and afternoon naps; and a boss (‘swathed in a whiskey mink, her eyes covered with enormous dark glasses, her head with a silk scarf in an equestrian pattern’) who keeps track of her authors on specially printed index cards. Her boss notes –
‘…agents used to be upstanding. None of these multiple submissions…no auctions, with publishers bidding against each other. It’s uncouth. That’s not the Agency way. We send things out to one editor at a time. We match writers with editors. We have morals.’
But of course, there’s only one author that Rakoff’s boss truly cares about – Jerry. The protocol for dealing with the famously reclusive Jerry is clear –
‘They’ll say they want to interview him or give him a prize or an honorary degree or who knows what. Producers will call about the film rights. They’ll try to get around you. They may be very persuasive, very manipulative. But you must never – never, never, never – give out his address or phone number.’
At this point, Rakoff has no idea who ‘Jerry’ refers to but when she is given the task of answering his fan-mail (written on everything from Smythson cream stock to Hello Kitty stationery) with an uninspired Agency form letter, My Salinger Year unfolds.
My Salinger Year is a coming-of-age story and of course it’s tempting to make parallels between Rakoff and Holden Caufield – I’ll leave that to the Catcher experts. Instead, know that this memoir is not just for Salinger fans – it’s about books and how they can change your life. Although it takes Rakoff some time before she has her ‘Salinger moment’ (which she had previously regarded as ‘…the window between 12 and 20, when everyone in the literate universe seems to go crazy over The Catcher in the Rye’), she is aware that friends are ‘settling down’, advancing their careers and tackling creative pursuits. She observes –
“Publishing, books, life. It seemed possible to get one right. But not all three.”
I’ve been trying to put my finger on what was so thoroughly appealing about this book. I’m not a mad Salinger fan (read Catcher decades ago) although the glimpses of various literary-celebs at the Agency (such as Judy Blume who was pitching Summer Sisters at the time) were thrilling. I suspect it was something in Rakoff’s careful but hopeful tone that reminded me of my own twenties (albeit without meeting Salinger and Blume). Her anguish; her triumphs; and her risk-taking is minor in the big scheme of things but nonetheless significant in the context of your twenties. It all feels so important when it’s happening and Rakoff captures that.
4/5 This is a quiet book, beautifully atmospheric (in regards to the Agency and New York) and it charmed me from the very beginning.
I received my copy of My Salinger Year from the publisher, Bloomsbury, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
We drank coffee and ate bagels with cream cheese and roasted peppers…