Reviewed by Victoria Best
When this memoir begins, Joanna Rakoff is 23 and has just dropped out of her graduate literary program in London and returned to New York, declaring that she wants to write her own poetry rather than analyse other people’s. To do so, however, she needs a job to tide her over, and by sheer chance she lands an assistant’s post at a literary agency. She’s not even sure what a literary agency is.
The agency turns out to be a step backwards in time. The year is 1996 and things are changing in commercial publishing, but pockets of the old way of doing things remain firmly resistant. The agency is a place of shaded lamps, crammed bookcases and pedal-driven dictaphones. Joanna must work on an ancient typewriter, as no computer has yet come to sully the gentility of this particular work place. Her boss is a throwback, too. A powerful older woman who explains nothing to her new assistant but likes to write her rules in stone, a woman who ‘appeared to have never been a child herself, but rather to have materialized on earth fully formed, in a taupe-hued pant-suit, cigarette in hand.’ Her boss is the agent for none other than J. D. Salinger, a task she relishes for the authority it conveys, but which is strangely empty because after all, the one thing everyone knows about Salinger is that he doesn’t publish any more.
While Joanna is at the agency, however, something unprecedented happens. ‘Jerry’ calls up his agent in order to discuss a new publication. It isn’t strictly speaking new, as it involves a long short story he wrote many years ago, widely considered not to be his best. But for Salinger to step into print with anything, even substandard work, would signal a major publishing event. The whole thing has come about because, ironically – given that one of Joanna’s main chores is to make sure no correspondence reaches him – a tiny indie publisher wrote to Salinger asking whether they might bring ‘Hapworth’ out as a book, and he appeared to like the idea. The level of fuss, bother and excitement that this provokes is wildly disproportionate to the sixty or so pages of text it represents. And Joanna, who has been told never on any account to talk to Salinger, finds herself occasionally on the end of the phone to him.
My boss’s warnings with regard to Salinger had focused on not initiating a conversation with him. There had been no stipulations, no guidelines, regarding what to do if he initiated a conversation with me. Presumably, such situations hadn’t arisen in many years. Decades even. The “Hapworth” deal had thrust us into new territory. A Wild West of Salinger etiquette.
The story of this potential publication is the silver thread running through the whole narrative, but this is as much a memoir about being young and untested and encountering one’s first properly disconcerting problems. Joanna has moved in with her new boyfriend, Don, a fact she has yet to reveal to her parents. Don is a socialist, a would-be novelist and a force of nature. Once Joanna has a job he moves them both into a quirky but comfortless apartment (the only heating unit they are given in the year nearly blows them up) and puts her name to the bills that are beyond her salary. Her parents decide at the same time to pass over all the credit card debt and unpaid loans they were holding onto for her (without having ever told her they existed) and her best friend is swapping allegiances, abandoning the old dreams they had once believed in together.
Lonely and feeling the pinch of impossible responsibilities, Joanna decides to take the initiative where she can and write back to some of the people whose letters to Salinger she has received. She’s been given a form letter for responses but it seems to her so cold, so distant, when the letters are often so heartbreaking. There are adolescents who believe that Salinger is the only person ever to have understood them, war veterans, who cherish his books, fans and well-wishers and admirers of all shapes and sizes. Joanna just doesn’t realise what she is taking on when she decides to try and soothe some of these lonely hearts.
This was easily the best non-fiction book I’ve read this year. It may well be one of the best books I read this year. I’ve been trying to figure out why I fell in love with it so hard, and perhaps the answer is because it is so real. It is a gentle, contemplative book that takes its time and recreates its situations vividly. It has immense heart, and it is above all else an extremely endearing paean to the wonders of literature. Anyone who remembers their first serious love and their first serious job and who is fond of reading will find much to relate to within its pages. If for no other reason, it demands to be read as a testimony to a way of publishing that is long gone. Over the course of Joanna’s year with the agency, the first (and only) computer is installed – right in the middle of the office so that no one should use it for personal reasons (how insightful was that?) and the electronic book makes its very first appearance. ‘When my boss first encountered this term, she’d shouted, “I don’t know what an electronic book is, but I’m not giving away the rights to it,”‘ Rakoff tells us. This is a wonderful memoir about lost times and their strangely hypnotic innocence.
Joanna Rakoff, My Salinger Year, (Bloomsbury, June 2014) 978-1408830178, 272 pages, hardback.