‘My Salinger Year’
by Joanna Rakoff
Knopf, 272 pp., $25.95
Four years ago, Joanna Rakoff published “My Adventures Answering J.D. Salinger’s Mail,” a fascinating 2,000-word article describing the year she worked at the literary agency that represented the reclusive author.
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Now comes “My Salinger Year,” the book, roughly a 100,000 word tome about — wait for it — the year she worked at the literary agency that represented J.D. Salinger. Sadly, bigger is not always better.
Rakoff returned to New York after earning an MBA in London. In 1996, she lands a secretarial job at a literary agency.
A prime responsibility, she’s told: Protect Jerry. It takes Rakoff a few minutes to grasp that her boss is talking about Salinger (whom she has never read) not Seinfeld. Rakoff is never, ever to provide information about him to anyone — no matter how desperately they plead.
As promised, the office is deluged with letters from people who identify with Holden Caulfield or Franny or Zooey and seek to somehow connect with their creator. She is supposed to send each supplicant a form letter and throw their request away. And at first she does.
But some of the writers — whether as a ruse to win sympathy or in fact — appear wretched and at wit’s end. Instead of form replies, she begins to send personal responses. “Could I just abandon them,” she asks. “Could I let them think no one cared?”
During the course of the year, she speaks to Salinger briefly on the phone before putting him through to her boss or taking a message. She meets him in the office once as well. He comes off as a decent enough person, a little weirdly overprotective of his privacy. Though this sheds no new light on our knowledge, it’s fine. For an article.
But what do you add for a book? She came up with two additional story lines. The first is Joanna Rakoff, who is surprisingly needy, insecure and a little naive. For reasons unclear, she moves in with Don, a domineering no-account who ogles other women in her presence and whose sole attribute is to occasionally compliment and make her feel better about herself.
Story line two is about a pivotal time in publishing, coinciding roughly with the year she is in the industry. It switches from a gentleman’s (and woman’s) profession to more of a more business (i.e. cutthroat) model. Where once authors and agents built relationships with editors and publishers, now it’s let’s-throw-a-manuscript-in-the-ring and see who bids the highest.
Her agency — for some reason unnamed in the book, though identified in the article — did not even use computers at the time. But Rakoff was a neophyte in publishing. While she notes the change, she can’t put it into perspective.
Eventually, she leaves the agency and breaks up with Don: “I feel like a different person from the girl you met,” she tells him. But it isn’t clear how she’s changed — or why.
There are some genuinely fine moments here, particularly those sections dealing with making it in the Big Apple on a Podunk salary. It’s all entertaining. But in the end, what she offers is three appetizers that will leave you hungry for more.