My Salinger Year, by Joanna Rakoff (Random House), memoir, 272 pages
Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year isn’t one of those memoirs that will change your life: no great catastrophes overcome, no revelations about life’s true purpose. It is, however, a lot of fun.
Rakoff worked for a year in the late 90s as an assistant to Salinger’s agent. The agent, and the agency itself were quirky in ways that seem strangely appropriate, given the focus on the notoriously difficult and quixotic writer. The Agency uses Dictaphones and typewriters. By the end of the book one—yes, exactly one—computer has been added to that pre-digital technology.
Rakoff spends her days typing letters, reviewing contracts, and protecting Salinger’s contact information from fans, press, and publishers alike. She is also responsible for handling Salinger’s correspondence—the incoming correspondence, that is. The Agency has a standard response that Rakoff is told to use: thank you for writing, but Mr. Salinger prefers not to receive correspondence, so we will not be forwarding your message to him, sincerely, & c. & c.
But Rakoff starts reading the letters, which come from lonely adolescents, war veterans, and the more or less crazy. The form letter comes to seem inadequate, so Rakoff begins modifying it: adding a kind word, a note of appreciation, or a bit of hard-nosed advice.
Nothing much else happens. Well, Rakoff misses her college boyfriend, grows less enchanted with the new boyfriend she’s sharing an apartment with, and bemoans her college friends’ gradual shift from free-spirited adventurers to solid citizens.
The fun of all of this is the way Rakoff tells her stories. Her voice is bell-clear. She writes with a self-deprecating perceptiveness that makes her a delightful companion. If you’re looking for a summer read that’s a bit more interesting—and literary—than the latest romance or thriller, this book will suit you nicely.