Book Review: My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

my salinger year joanna rakoff

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff, published by Knopf Canada.

This is the kind of book that made me forget to underline the lines I liked. When looking back on the three pages I dog-eared, I see that one was about a girl eating a pound of spaghetti, one was just because I thought a remark about stationery was funny, and the third, well, I’m not quite sure why I flagged it. My Salinger Year was so good that I forgot to track why. But don’t worry, I can still tell you why.

Rakoff is just one of the many girls who grew up around books, romanticizing them and making them their business. I’m one of those girls, too. So that was my first interest. The second: Rakoff landed a job in the 1990s at a literary agency – one that she later finds out represents J.D. Salinger. At first that tidbit doesn’t really phase her, it’s the fan mail he receives. Salinger is not to receive any word from fans. And Rakoff is not to send anything other than a form letter back to the fans. But she easily disregards that rule. What starts out as a curious look into Salinger’s fans and why they love his work turns into Rakoff’s own journey with Salinger. She casually chats with him on the phone (well, yells, he’s practically deaf), and then one weekend, she reads all of his books. She barely gets out of bed. She gets it. And yet what she loves so much about him highly contrasts towards her life — what she thought it would be and what it ended up being.

Salinger was not cutesy. His work was not nostalgic. These were not fairy tales about child geniuses traipsing the streets of Old New York.

Salinger was nothing like I’d thought. Nothing.

Salinger was brutal. Brutal and funny and precise. I loved him. I loved it all.

But Rakoff is also quite preoccupied with a) her asshole of an elitist novelist boyfriend (so frustrating!), b) growing up, c) the agency and her old style boss and d) Salinger’s plan to release a new book.

Don. Don Don Don. I wanted to smack him the moment he was introduced. Rakoff, like so many other girls, doesn’t quite see that he’s not worth it until the relationship lasted for quite some time. He makes her buy an apartment for them, because he just doesn’t have the funds. Oh yeah, and that apartment’s floors are crooked, and it doesn’t have a sink or heating. He doesn’t invite her to his best friend’s wedding. He is only concerned about his pretentious writing, which Rakoff thinks sucks.

“Okay,” I told him warily, when I finished, and handed the thin sheaf back to him. He’d had to force himself not to stand over me as I read.

“That’s it?” he said. “Okay.” He let out a strange cackle. “Did you like it?”

I shrugged. “I guess, well, this character seems kind of like a male fantasy. The blonde with the perfect body who says, ‘Do anything you want to me.'”

“It’s funny that you say that,” said Don, his face darkening, nostrils flaring. “It’s really funny. Because this story is completely taken from my life. That character is based on one of my girlfriends in San Francisco. Grete.”

Rakoff, like so many other girls, is very concerned with how times change when you get older. Her parents hit her over the head with debt she wasn’t expecting, her old, close friend has become someone she doesn’t recognize (aka, doting housewife), she’s tired of going to so many cool cocktail parties. She doesn’t know what to do when she grows up.

“It’s so nice to be normal,: she’d told me a few months earlier, when I returned from London. In high school, we’d not wanted to be normal. We’d made fun of the normal people. We’d hated them.

I know, I said reflexively, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to be normal. I wanted to be extraordinary. I wanted to write novels and make films and speak ten languages and travel around the world. I wanted everything. So, I’d thought, had Jenny.

So somehow, she landed at this agency. And on her first day, Rakoff is dropped at a desk where so many other girls sat before her. And sure, it’s the ’90s, but Rakoff has to use a typewriter and dictaphone to do her work – typing letters, whether they are notes dictated from her scary agent boss or the aforementioned letters to Salinger’s fans.

For weeks I typed and typed and typed. I typed so much that I dreamed of typing. In my dreams, my fingers ran over the keys and nothing happened, though my ribbon was intact and my machine appeared to be functioning. Instead of letters imprinting on paper, birds flew out of the innards of my typewriter, chirping and flapping, or swarms of white dusty moths, some huge, some tiny, and took up roost around the office. The hum of the machine filled my days, a backdrop to every conversation, every word I read, so that when I shut the Selectric off at the end of the day, and sheathed it in its plastic cover, the ensuing silence filled me with immeasurable joy.

Rakoff was extremely lucky to be at the agency during the time that Salinger *almost* published a short story as a novella through an independent publisher. The back-and-forth, the *almost* friendships, the stress and the total confusion as to why is he doing this is exciting to be able to get a peek into. This is when she bonds with Salinger, her coworkers and the industry.

Well,” my boss said, clapping her hands together as if to startle me out of my misplaced anxiety. “We have a lot to discuss. Let’s get to it, Jerry. Why don’t you come sit down for a bit, and then we’ll go to lunch?”

“That sounds perfect,” said Salinger, and he followed my boss into her office, towering over her small form. The contracts for the “Hapworth” book were drawn up. I myself had typed and retyped multiple drafts of the contract until we found a format that was amenable to Salinger. This, of course, also fell under the category of highly irregular: publishers drew up contracts, not agents.

Rakoff learns a lot more about herself and the literary industry through this memoir. I’m glad she decided to take us along this journey. Her writing is eloquent and welcoming, captivating and conversational. I, like so many other girls, thoroughly enjoyed this book.

Publishing, books, life, I thought as I walked, through the cool air, up to the L at Third Avenue. It seemed possible to get one right. But not all three.

You can bet these pages are all dog-eared now.

I want to share this book with so many other literary-loving girls I know. I want to study Rakoff’s writing, and read her fiction. You’ll lose yourself in just one year of Rakoff’s life, one from decades ago that she has managed to capture expertly, and you’ll be sad when it’s over. It’ll make you want to take account of your life more closely, make closer connections and strive for what you know is the best for you when you first notice it. And it will really make you want to read Salinger.

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