My Salinger Year
Copy courtesy of Bloomsbury ANZ
In 1996, Joanna Rakoff had left graduate school in London and moved back to New York where she took a job as an assistant to a literary agent working for a company simply known as The Agency. It would be a place to work while she worked on her poems and the tasks didn’t seem too difficult. The Agency hadn’t quite embraced the modern age yet so typing was all done on a typewriter, listening to her Boss’s voice via dictaphone. The wood-panelled walls and lamps that lit the rooms dimly seemed remnants of a bygone era but Joanna soon found herself enjoying the charms of working at The Agency. She was informed that The Agency represented Jerry. Specificially, her boss represented Jerry and as her assistant, Joanna might find that people called for Jerry. A lot. They would want to be given his contact details. They would want her to take messages for him, get back to them with replies. Joanna was never to give out any information regarding Jerry. Ever. In fact, she was not to pass anything on either. No letters or messages. And if Jerry himself rang the office, Joanna was to patch him straight through. She wasn’t to talk to him, or gush about how much she enjoyed his books.
Jerry? thought Joanna. Who is Jerry? As she left her boss’s office, she caught sight of a set of pristine first edition J.D Salinger novels. Oh, she realised. That Jerry.
And people do ring for Jerry. Often. As well as politely informing those callers that Jerry doesn’t wish to be contacted or his contact details revealed, Joanna is also given the task of responding to Jerry’s fanmail. There’s a template for such a task and it’s been carried out by presumably numerous employees of The Agency before Joanna. However Joanna can’t help but be taken by some of these letters, the passion and the devotion from these fans. Joanna has never read a J.D. Salinger work – in some ways she fears she has ‘missed the window’, having not read his signature work, The Catcher In The Rye as a teen. Eventually, Joanna disregards the template she has been given…and starts writing back.
When I was in my second year of University, my boyfriend at the time shoved into my hands, a copy of The Catcher In The Rye. Everyone knew that I was a reader, but I hadn’t read any Salinger. These Great American Novels don’t tend to make it onto our school curriculum and I hadn’t read many of those classics. At best I have a tenuous relationship with the classics anyway. Mostly I read for fun, not to study. I wanted humour or romance or a fantastic fantasy world. Reading was escape. If I had to work to read a book then the point was gone. However, I dutifully read The Catcher In The Rye, which my boyfriend had told me, spoke to him like no other book had. At the end, I was so-so. It was okay. It didn’t really speak to me but it was interesting. And that’s pretty much the end of my relationship with J.D. Salinger. Like Joanna, I kind of wonder if missed the boat a bit. I was 20. I’d been living out of home for two years. Recently when he was visiting us, my dad decided he wanted to read a book. We have over 1000 for him to choose from and he picked The Catcher In The Rye because it was short and he’d never read it. But mostly, because it was short. And he read it in an afternoon. The first time my dad has read a book in one sitting for probably 45 years. Maybe ever.
I don’t think you have to be an unabashed fan of Salinger’s to really enjoy this book. I’m certainly not and yet I enjoyed Joanna’s story, her slight bewilderment at getting the job and the ins and outs of The Agency. At one stage she visits her friend who works nearby in an office that’s converting to paperless. They all have shiny new computers and communicate to one another via email. I didn’t even experiment with a computer until about 1998, so thinking of a paperless office in 1996 is very progressive. When The Agency finally unveils a computer, Joanna is rather thrilled – until she realises that it is for the entire office to share! Despite the fact that she’s told not to converse with Jerry, circumstances sometimes lead to him calling when her boss is not available and she finds him shouting at the other end of the phone (he’s slightly deaf). Despite his reclusive nature, Joanna finds him pleasant and easy to converse with so long as he can hear her. On a whim she takes copies of his books home to read one day and finds herself utterly floored by the power of his way with words.
If I could pick any job, it would probably be something like Joanna’s. Even though The Agency is antiquated, harking back to the heydays of the 50s and 60s ‘serious’ literature, there’s a wealth of experience and knowledge there to attain. She types correspondence and answers the phone but she also attends launches, dinners and mixes in literary circles. Eventually she is given responsibility to start sending out stories herself, choosing editors of publications carefully. When she’s not at work, Joanna lives with her boyfriend Don, a modern socialist and budding author. They mix with other socialist types, writers and poets. The personal part of this memoir often left me a bit cold – Don was a highly unlikable sort, it was difficult to ascertain why Joanna was with him at all, despite the claim that she needed to be unhappy or similar to write her own poetry.
The only book I’ve read of Salinger’s is The Catcher In The Rye – and as I said, that was almost 14 years ago now. I have to admit, this book has piqued my interest to go and try some of his other work, particularly Franny & Zooey which has featured in quite a few books I’ve read in recent times. I have a biography of Salinger sitting on my shelf called In Search of J.D. Salinger by Ian Hamilton sitting on my shelf that my husband pulled out of the pile which apparently drew legal action from the famously private Salinger when Hamilton was writing it. Might read that next – this book has definitely made me want to learn more about this man.
Book #116 of 2014