“We all have to start somewhere.” For Joanna Rakoff, in her memoir My Salinger Year, that’s leaving graduate school early—“or finishing [her] master’s, depending how you looked at it”—and taking a job in Manhattan, as the assistant to the established literary agent who represents J.D. Salinger. While Rakoff aspires to be a poet, with no other plan, she finds herself accepting this alternative, serving as a glorified secretary and moving to a shoddy apartment in Williamsburg.
The people who inhabit her streets are familiar, decades later, even if they’ve now abandoned Williamsburg and settled, rather, in the cheaper sections of Bushwick and Bed-Stuy. The friends of her novelist boyfriend, a socialist named Don, are modern-day caricatures of the lazy Brooklyn artist—“Allison lived in a garret-like studio on Morton Street and complained of poverty but ate out every night”—and “while they strove,” like so many others, “to shake the trappings of their privileged childhoods,” they don’t resonate, entirely, as unrealized characters. They’re distinct individuals, and Rakoff shares several humorous asides about them: One night, for instance, when she returns home from work with an anecdote about Judy Blume visiting her office, Don breaks down a Marxist interpretation of the children’s writer. And yet, while there are many other such digressions, those close to her soon become a little too self-serving, leading the author to momentous epiphanies: When she realizes her best friend, Jenny, needs the perfect wedding to validate her existence, Rakoff evaluates her own identity. And when, too, Don doesn’t speak with New Yorker editors at a party (he only talks with “fools…so that he might be their king”), she contemplates how she is, then, perceived.
It is, of course, a coming-of-age memoir, and these retrospective insights are to be expected. The major conflict, other than launching Rakoff’s writing career, concerns whether she should get back with her college boyfriend. And though the portions in which she details ’90s Brooklyn might be trite, it’s probably less Rakoff’s fault and more that the stories of New York’s gentrification, cafés, and apartments without amenities are becoming all too familiar. Regardless of these flaws, Rakoff redeems herself—and her story truly takes shape—with her portrayal of her first job: the Agency.
Something I initially found annoying, and deft later, are the Orwellian titles she uses to describe work: her employer is referred to solely as the “Agency”; the woman in charge is just the “boss”; and a high-profile client, one less famous than Salinger, is known simply as “the Other Client.” These general labels fail a bit (the relationship between Rakoff and her boss is difficult to discern without a first-name basis), but they do prove well in highlighting an enterprise that’s stuck in the past, in its nearly obsolete practices. The Agency, with its refusal to embrace technological advancements, is comically displayed as an anachronistic and totalitarian world. It’s the mid ’90s, and it requires persistent persuading for the boss to purchase a computer. The office is nothing but “a dark room, lined from floor to ceiling with books”; the agents smoke with the intensity of Mad Men characters; and Rakoff primarily spends her days typing on a Selectric.
Still, there’s a clear nostalgia Rakoff feels for the Agency “way,” these outdated traditions. And there’s also, notably, a Salinger-like feel to the narrative, as Rakoff begins acknowledging that it takes a lot to make people care—that it takes a lot, really, for somebody to appreciate you “revealing your goddam emotions to the world.”
One doesn’t need to read Salinger, though, to understand what makes Rakoff come to this realization—what makes her, at long last, abandon a template and start to respond to Jerry’s fan mail. What matters, and what Rakoff emphasizes, is that these strangers feel as if Salinger’s stories are personal “confessions,” that reading his work is “like having [him] whisper…into your ear.”
Those who write to Salinger, and whom Rakoff answers, include soldiers, a boy from Winston-Salem, a girl seeking an “A” in her English class, and, predictably, “crazies”; none are given names, and their ambiguity further adds to Rakoff’s own self-doubt. Her responses are some of the first times she shares her writing, and when many reply, they do so to tell her that she’s nobody, “just some person.”
It is, in the end, the gradual process of her recognizing her potential—reading The Catcher in the Rye and noting that “Salinger had not always been Salinger”—that causes her 12 months to be so significant. Rakoff might never reveal the name of the “Agency,” or her “boss,” or the “Other Client,” and the disgruntled teenagers and lonely veterans may never hear from their favorite author, but that isn’t the same as them not existing.
It’ll just take some time to get them all to listen.
Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year is now available from Knopf; to purchase it, click here.