Fresh off leaving grad school in London, 23-year-old Joanna Rakoff returns to the U.S. and stumbles into a job as an assistant at one of New York’s oldest literary agencies. She gets the job despite not really knowing anything about the agency, the publishing industry, or even how to type. Hey, it was the ’90s.
Freshly installed at her desk, Joanna struggles to relate to her boss, who barks instructions before retreating behind the closed door of her office to make phone calls and smoke cigarettes in seclusion. Eventually, thanks to some co-workers who take pity on her, she learns the ins and outs of her position. She also learns that the “Jerry” her boss keeps referring to is none other than Jerome David Salinger, the famously reclusive author and the agency’s most important client.
Joanna is suitably impressed, despite the fact that at this point she hasn’t read any of “Jerry’s” literary output. She’s given the task of responding to Salinger’s fan mail. It’s an eclectic mix of teenagers looking for help with their English class assignments, veterans who relate to Salinger’s service in WWII, and the opportunists looking to make money off of Salinger’s name. Joanna is just supposed to send back a form letter stating that Salinger isn’t accepting any mail at this time, but eventually she begins to feel for some of the correspondents and writes longer responses under her own name.
Joanna’s time at the agency occurs at a fortuitous time, as Salinger decides after years without publishing that he’d like to put out an edition of his last published work, the novella “Hapworth 16, 1924.” Somehow a small-press owner in Virginia had managed to get a letter to the author and convince him of the plan.
While the agency irons out the details between the press and the notoriously fickle author, Joanna’s life has its own complications to be dealt with. Unbeknownst to her family she’s been living in Williamsburg with her socialist boyfriend in a dirt-cheap apartment without working heat or even a kitchen sink. While he writes a novel and withdraws into himself, Joanna realizes that she’s been ignoring her own needs and wants and losing touch with her friends. She starts to ask herself what she is getting out of her relationship and her job, and if either of them are really helping her get to where she wants to be.
Rakoff is a good writer and, unless she’s just making this stuff up, has a remarkable memory. It’s interesting to get even her limited perspective on Salinger given how few people interacted with him in those days. Still, there are some frustrating aspects to the book. Rakoff presents herself as someone to whom things just happen, from her boyfriend steamrolling her to rent the place in Brooklyn in her name only to her parents taking out massive student loans without even telling her. You occasionally get the urge to scream at her to take control of her life and own up to her decisions.
Still, My Salinger Year is an interesting look at the publishing industry at a specific moment in time, caught between the old world of handshake-deals and martini lunches and the coming era of the Internet and e-readers. Joanna Rakoff is an engaging correspondent from that time to ours.