Sunday, June 15, 2014

We Need To Talk About Jerry

Today's Sunday Guardian column.

The spirit of J.D. Salinger still haunts us. Years after his death, there’s continuing speculation over his reclusive life and writing. Recently, there was David Shields and Shane Salerno’s Salinger, filled with scraps of information gleaned from those who knew him, not least of which was the revelation that the writer’s estate intends to release more of his work. Last month, there was the slim J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist by novelist Thomas Beller, an account of Salinger’s life and relationships through the prism of Beller’s own sensibilities; one life refracted through another, so to speak. Now, there’s the intriguingly titled My Salinger Year, by poet and writer Joanna Rakoff.

This isn’t a tell-all account of a hushed relationship, as with Joyce Maynard’s At Home in the World. In 1996, Rakoffworked as an assistant at Harold Ober Associates, the venerable New York literary agency that represented Salinger, and this is a report of her time there, including her handling of the many fan letters addressed to the author. My Salinger Year is most of all a bildungsroman: Rakoff’s education at the agency is matched by a corresponding coming-of-age saga out of it. Slices of a vanished New York; a young woman making her way in the world; and reflections on the ways of the literati: the same ingredients are to be most recently found – albeit treated less skillfully – in Janet Groth’s 2012 memoir, The Receptionist: An Education at the New Yorker.

Rakoff’s prose is precise and evocative, revisiting and conveying the feelings experienced by her twenty-three-year-old self when adapting to the strangeness of a new job and archaic environment. It’s with the same sensitivity that she handles her after-work life: her fraught relationship with a domineering boyfriend who has socialist leanings, their efforts to rent an affordable apartment in New York, her shifting relationship with her parents, and her meetings with friends who have moved on (some of which unintentionally come across as an earlier generation’s version of Lena Dunham’s Girls).

When it came to Salinger, Rakoff’s instructions were clear from day one. After a terse “we need to talk about Jerry,” she’s told to “never, never, never give out his address or phone number….Don’t answer their questions. Just get off the phone as quickly as possible….Our job is not to bother him. We take care of his business so he doesn’t have to be bothered with it.” Fan mail was to be answered by a form letter drafted in 1963. Such missives were many: from old acquaintances, war veterans, editors and, of course, rabid fans, mainly teenagers expressing a sentiment that could be summed up as “Holden Caulfield is the only character in literature who is truly like me. And you, Mr. Salinger, are surely the same person as Holden Caulfield. Thus, you and I should be friends.” Rakoff dutifully sends off the form letters, but at times she’s unable to stop herself from sending out letters of her own, words of advice to those whose personal circumstances are oppressive. (The irony is delicious and evident.)

Rakoff also manages to speak to Salinger on the occasions he calls for his agent, during which he commends her efforts to be a poet and, being hard of hearing, refers to her as Suzanne. Their one meeting is disappointingly anticlimactic, consisting of little more than a handshake, despite “a strong and bizarre—and inexplicable—urge to hug him”.

“What really knocks me out,” Holden famously says in Salinger’s Catcher, “is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” Salinger evidently evoked the same feeling in his readers because of his distinctive, intimate writing voice. Rakoff, a late convert, comes to realize just this -- “I loved him. I loved it all” -- and her memoir is an intimate, engaging account of finding her own voice. 

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