My Salinger Year, by Joanna Rakoff, Bloomsbury Circus, RRP£16.99/Knopf, RRP$25.95, 272 pages
We need to talk about Jerry,” Joanna Rakoff’s boss says one lunchtime, not long after the 23-year-old Rakoff – equipped with a lovingly described, retro office wardrobe that wouldn’t be out of place on Peggy Olson in Mad Men’s early seasons – arrives at the Agency. “The Agency”, which is never referred to any other way, is a famous literary agency in New York; “Jerry” is JD Salinger; Joanna’s boss is his agent. It is 1996 but Joanna’s 1960s style is perfectly suited to an office where contacts are kept on a Rolodex, letters are typed on an IBM Selectric after they’ve been read into a Dictaphone, and if the phone rings when no one’s there, well, it just rings and rings and rings.
Joanna is the lowly assistant whose chief task, she is informed, will be to keep the Salinger obsessives at bay. Reporters and students will call, asking for his address: she is never to give it out. Honorary degrees will be offered. They are to be turned down. “Don’t tell them anything,” Joanna’s boss says. “Don’t answer their questions. Just get off the phone as quickly as possible.”
The one person Joanna knows won’t call is Salinger himself: and yet, one spring morning, she picks up the phone to hear someone shouting at the other end of the line. “HELLO? HELLO?” She hears “gibberish” – until the caller says, “It’s Jerry.” Yes, Salinger himself, and so begins her peculiar involvement with the Hermit of Cornish. She feels protective of him, curious about him, frightened of him; and then, when she finally reads his work – which she had never done until she arrived at the Agency – she feels, as so many have before, that it is not like reading at all “but more like having Salinger himself whisper his accounts into your ear”. She tells him she is a poet; his anodyne remarks (“You’re writing every day?”) have the air of a benediction.
Salinger fanatics will remember the mid-1990s as a momentous time – when the reclusive author nearly agreed to allow Orchises Press, a tiny publishing concern based in Alexandria, Virginia, to release an edition of Hapworth 16, 1924, a novella that had been published in The New Yorker in 1965. In the end, the edition never appeared: Roger Lathbury, who ran Orchises, applied (as any publisher would) for Library of Congress Cataloguing in Publication data; this information is public. News of the book broke; Salinger, being Salinger, got cold feet and pulled out of the deal. Joanna is somewhere in the middle of all this, talking to Jerry, talking to Roger, struggling with her boyfriend Don, a would-be writer with a chip the size of Texas on his shoulder.
Elegantly written, wryly observed, Rakoff’s memoir is a high-quality literary snack. And yet it is a curious book. In an author’s note she tells us she has changed the names of “most, though not all, of the people”; if you don’t work on an IBM Selectric but have access to the internet, it’s not hard to discover Rakoff’s piece for Slate, written just after Salinger died, in which she names both the Agency, Harold Ober Associates, and her boss, Phyllis Westberg. Perhaps their omission here is an artistic decision but it’s hard to understand why some names are changed and not others.
Curious, too, is the hidden heart of this memoir. “It was strange to feel the force of a famous person’s attention,” Rakoff writes of Salinger; that force, I’m guessing, pulled her away from the story she, perhaps, feared to tell. On her second day at the Agency her beloved Dad calls, concerned she’s not earning enough money there; just why he’s concerned makes for a shocking revelation not long after. This became the story I wanted to hear; and yet it doesn’t surprise me that Rakoff felt she had to look away.
The last pages of this book skip to 2010, to Salinger’s death – Rakoff is married, with children, her Salinger year is long in the past. But her father is dying too; and when she weeps for Salinger, her husband wonders whether she’s thinking of her Dad. “With the back of my hand, I wiped the tears from my face and swiped my nose. ‘No,’ I said. ‘It’s just about Salinger.’ ” That’s a shame. Maybe someday Joanna Rakoff will write the story she needs to tell.