‘My Salinger Year,’ by Joanna Rakoff

June 13

Seeing the title of Joanna Rakoff’s memoir, you may well wonder, ­“Haven’t we heard enough about J.D. Salinger?” A year of reading Proust we can understand — but a year of reading Salinger?

Fortunately, that’s not what “My Salinger Year” is about. Yes, the reclusive writer makes a cameo appearance — clad in a pressed flannel shirt tucked into jeans, striding slowly through the venerated midtown Manhattan literary agency where Rakoff lands a job as an editorial assistant in 1996. One of her primary responsibilities, which her boss explains sternly on her first day, is to deflect all attempts to contact “Jerry,” a name that for Rakoff initially evokes Seinfeld. Another duty is to respond to the deluge of raw, imitative fan letters addressed to the steadfastly unavailable author. ­Rakoff is taken by surprise when Salinger calls, and she splutters through several kind, even touching, telephone conversations with the hard-of-hearing author.

But “My Salinger Year” is at heart — and it has lots of heart — an affecting coming-of-age memoir about a naive, eager literary aspirant who, like a character out of Salinger (Franny Glass, for one), “was trying to figure out how to live in this world.”In a move she can’t quite explain, Rakoff has veered off-script by ditching her adoring college boyfriend and moving in with an unpublished writer who is older, penniless and casually cruel. No sooner does Rakoff land her subsistence-
salaried job as a glorified secretary than her father, a well-off dentist, stuns her by passing along bills for college loans he secretly applied for in her name. (Visiting home a few months later, Rakoff wonders bitingly, “What might my parents spring on me this time? A preschool bill? Back pay for my childhood nanny?”)

“This is, I know, an old story,” Rakoff writes. She’s referring to her disappointment about growing apart from a former best friend, but her assessment applies equally to her tale of invisibility as both the ingénue at the typewriter and the young woman shacked up with a narcissist with a roving eye. In fact, Rakoff dealt with similar themes in her first novel, “A Fortunate Age” (2009), which, in an homage to Mary McCarthy’s “The Group,” followed the trajectories of a circle of close friends in the years after they graduated from Oberlin College. She even recycles some of the same incidents, including the near-disastrous installation of a gas heater in her apartment, which lacked a kitchen sink. What adds freshness to “My Salinger Year” is not just its wry take on the writer of the rye but Rakoff’s sympathetic mix of passivity, naiveté, stoicism, earnestness, understated intelligence and finely honed literary sensibility.

“We all have to start somewhere,” Rakoff writes, setting up a vivid portrait of her in­scrutable, mink-and-Hermès-clad boss and her willfully antiquated workplace, where Dictaphones and massive, whirring electric typewriters have yet to be replaced by computers and printers. In her working-girl uniform of plaid skirts and fitted sweaters, Rakoff adds to the time warp by reminding us of Sylvia Plath, the subject of her master’s thesis.

One can only assume that Rakoff’s awkward, careful references to “my boss” and “the Agency” are dictated by liability issues. The dodge seems especially odd since their true identities — Phyllis Westberg at Harold Ober Associates — are a simple Google search away and are explicitly named in Rakoff’s article about answering Salinger’s mail, which was published in Slate shortly after his death in January 2010.

While that article formed the kernel for this book, Rakoff wisely — and deftly — weaves her Salinger story into a broader, more universal tale about finding one’s bearings during a pivotal transitional year into real adulthood. Although she’s well read — her literary taste leans toward Flaubert, Mary Gaitskill and David Foster Wallace — she’d always avoided Salinger, imagining him to be “insufferably cute, aggressively quirky, precious.” Surprisingly, she doesn’t correct the omission until she’s been working at the agency for eight months. Over a Labor Day weekend when her boyfriend is off attending a wedding from which he has pointedly excluded her, she holes up with Salinger’s books and finally discovers firsthand what all the fuss is about. “Salinger was nothing like I’d thought,” she writes. “Nothing. Salinger was brutal. Brutal and funny and precise. I loved him. I loved it all.”

Like so many readers, Rakoff finds solace in lessons gleaned from Salinger. For the most part, she avoids being heavy-handed about this. But in a coda to her story that fast-forwards 13 years, to the night of Salinger’s death, Rakoff, by then living with her husband and their two small children, drops a one-line reference to Franny’s unsuitable Princeton date in “Franny and Zooey.” In a jarring, overloaded aside, she writes, “Perhaps I had married someone rather too much like Lane Coutell. Three years later, I would pack up my children and leave him for my college boyfriend.”

A better takeaway is the sober­ing lesson that Rakoff, who tends to wear her heart on her sleeve, absorbed from one of the many fans who emulated Holden Caulfield’s voice when writing to the recluse of Cornish, N.H.: “You can’t go around revealing your goddam emotions to the world.”

McAlpin reviews books regularly for The Washington Post, NPR and the Christian Science Monitor.

MY
SALINGER YEAR

Joanna Rakoff

Knopf, 249 pp., $25.95

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