My Salinger Year, by Joanna Rakoff, book review: In the shadow of a legend


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The Independent Culture

J D Salinger was one of the most intriguing of modern writers. He was a publisher’s dream, an author whose readership extended to enormous numbers of people who do not normally buy books. And despite this massive popularity, the quality of his writing remains mostly undisputed. The Salinger legend was fuelled further by his reclusiveness; as he shunned visitors and ignored mail, the enigma surrounding him grew steadily larger.

Joanna Rakoff, meanwhile, arrived in New York in the mid-1990s, fresh from university, as a fledgling poet. Like so many before and since, she became side-tracked. In her case, the detour was a spell at a literary agency as an assistant. Still, at least the agency was prestigious and long-established, though there were attendant disadvantages. The premises were dimly lit, not to say sepulchral; more crucially, there were no computers to lighten the administrative load.

Worse still, and perhaps predictably, her boss seemed forbidding, but Rakoff’s memoir is not the literary version of The Devil Wears Prada. The aloof culture of the office was offset by getting acquainted with the agency’s famous client. Salinger was friendly over the phone and, later, in person, though chronically deaf.

His fan mail landed in staggering volumes, much of it from teenagers and frequently resembling letters to agony aunts. Even had he wished to, he could never have dealt with this industrial quantity of angst. Rakoff was mesmerised by the letters and when she got round to reading Salinger’s works herself, she became an ardent fan.

Like Holden Caulfield, Rakoff has an entertaining eye for potential phonies. Outside work, she went out with Don, a writer; his penny-pinching lifestyle and emotional disengagement seemed to reflect a chilling self-centredness. Whether his lengthy and challenging novel could take flight was unclear; in contrast, Rakoff’s first steps to get her poetry published were successful.

Here she writes with springy energy, but is always revealing. A bonus is a portrait of Brooklyn in its proto-hipster era, when young women set off to work in vintage dresses to meet by evening in the borough’s meagre stock of happening venues. It was a boho milieu that featured deflating impoverishment: Rakoff heated her apartment by leaving her oven on and the  door open.

She delivers an elegant account of her coming of age in the shadow of Salinger, a writer whose achievement was to describe what it is like to be young and at war with the world with such unerring veracity that so many of his readers thought he had captured their inner lives with omniscient fidelity. Her memoir is a small jewel.