Sunday, July 27, 2014

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff


I, like everyone else, read Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye in high school but haven't read it again since and when I moved to New Hampshire, I learned that there was the additional connection between Granite Staters and Salinger. He lived in Cornish as a near recluse in the State - maybe he knew what everyone else in NH knew - people here seem to respect a person's desire to keep to themselves as long as they're not causing any problems. So, when I heard a story on NPR about how Rakoff wrote a book about working for the literary agency that represented Salinger, my interest was piqued.

This book takes place in 1996 and is best classified as a memoir; however it really feels like she could be talking about the female office workers in the Mad Men era. These are tastefully dressed women who live in Brooklyn and can barely make their rent, let alone purchase a deli sandwich. Most of Rakoff's friends are, like her, the underpaid assistants to the agents in the big literary houses. There are many motivations for taking these jobs but they inevitably boil down to a love of books or the desire to become a writer or both; I think that these women think that taking these jobs will give them a foot in the door. Rakoff was hired to work at "The Agency" and was assigned to the big boss, who was notoriously blunt and brusque. The president and Agency had represented JD Salinger for approximately 6 years before Rakoff was hired. The Agency was so old school that they didn't have computers, a fax machine or a wordprocessory until the middle of Rakoff's tenure there. They did everything on typewriters (what's THAT!?). Salinger fascinated Rakoff, as he did and does everyone else. She's told on her first day NEVER to give out a phone number or address for him, regardless of why the person is calling. They would be directed to the boss who would then handle it. Part of Rakoff's job was answering Salinger's voluminous fan mail. She is also give a form letter to send, but opts instead to personally answer as many of the letters as possible. The letters came from all sorts of people from all walks of life: teenagers, veterans, housewives, you name it. Someone was assigned to read the snail mail sent to Salinger since Lennon was shot by someone who has just read/was reading Catcher. After that, the mail was going right to the trash bin. Rakoff wa that person.

Ironically Rakoff hadn't read anything written by Salinger - she considered herself to be a literary snob, limiting herself to authors like Faulkner. She spent one weekend devouring Salinger books and was hooked. This memoir doesn't require that you be hooked on Salinger in order to enjoy it. A lot of the memoir focuses on the culture of the literary agency career at the time. A good portion also focused on a coming of age story to some degree - during this year, Rakoff learns that she has to grow up and act like the adult that she is. The writing is phenomenal - she has a really great voice that is easy to appreciate and like and which hooks you almost immediately. A must read.

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