A young assistant answers fan mail for J.D. Salinger and grows to appreciate his work.
The late J.D. Salinger still has many fans: They are young and they are old; they live in the United States and they live abroad. But when Joanna Rakoff went to work for Salinger’s literary agent in 1996, she was not one of them. In fact, she had never read any of his work.
In this graceful and charming memoir, Rakoff writes about her first year in the publishing world of the mid-’90s as a “Bright Young Assistant” in an unnamed literary agency. She paints a nostalgic picture of the “Agency”: a place where typewriters and Dictaphones still reign supreme as the electronic age edges closer and closer. Her boss (known throughout the memoir as “my boss”) decidedly remains in the past, but Rakoff portrays her quirks with empathy.
And then there is Salinger — or “Jerry,” as he is known around the office. Over the course of the year, Rakoff is slowly allowed to interact with Salinger and respond to the hundreds of letters he receives each week from fans. Rakoff is instructed to respond to each of these missives with a form letter that tells the sender that the letter will not be forwarded to Salinger (per his instructions), but as the year goes on she starts to add her own personal notes to the letters — notes not always received in the manner they were intended. Toward the end of her tenure at the agency, Rakoff reads Salinger’s work, all of it, and “Suddenly the full picture was clear.”
While the memoir does center around Salinger, and in particular the year his novella “Hapworth 16, 1924” is supposed to be published, the elusive author is only part of the story. The real story is Rakoff’s: the push and pull of working with published writers while wanting to be one herself; the enormous personal and financial cost of living in New York City while barely making enough to pay for groceries; the loss of friends to marriage, consuming jobs and other cities; the pain of staying in a relationship that is so obviously broken.
Fans who turn to this book for juicy tidbits about Salinger’s life will be disappointed: Rakoff is as respectful of the author’s notorious wish for privacy as his literary agent was when he was alive. However, readers who appreciate a finely written coming-of-age story — one that includes disappointment as well as triumph — will savor Rakoff’s Salinger year.
Meganne Fabrega is a freelance writer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.