Friday, November 21, 2014

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

In 1996 Joanna Rakoff left her graduate studies in London, moved to New York and took a job as an assistant to a literary agent at a well-respected company. But the job was not the literary dream job she had expected. Rather than reading manuscripts and hobnobbing with authors, her duties consisted mainly of typing form letters on an old electric typewriter. In the mid 1990’s, working in an office that refused to use computers, her primary job was to type the same form letter over and over again and mail them to the fans of The Agency’s most famous author, J.D. Salinger. Salinger, a recluse who had not published an original work since 1965, refused to accept the large amount of fan mail he received daily.  Hence, it was Ms. Rakoff’s duty to read and answer each letter. And, no matter how plaintive the message, she was to send the same typed form letter. This was a directive she eventually felt compelled to ignore. Feeling compassion for some of the letter writers, she broke the rules and responded with heartfelt sympathy and some good advice.
She could have used some sympathy and good advice in her personal life.  She lived with her inconsiderate, self-absorbed boyfriend in an apartment that had neither heat nor a kitchen sink. (No problem! They had a bathtub and sweaters.) Poorly paid, she was not able to stretch her salary to cover all her expenses. Her boyfriend expected her to shoulder the entire responsibility for the rent so he could work on his novel. And her well-to-do father surprised her with the bills for student loans she had not known had been taken out in her name.

However her life was not all stress and struggle. She loved living in New York and her descriptions of the city are quite enticing. She adjusted to working at The Agency and eventually was assigned more interesting work. Her descriptions of an office and agents that seem to have come right out of a 1940’s comedy film are amusing. She spoke to Salinger on the phone and met him once. She eventually came to love his books as much as the writers of the fan mail she answered. And she developed the self-confidence to leave the job and the boyfriend and move on to a more fulfilling life. My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff is an account of a young woman maturing, helped into adulthood by the creator of Holden Caufield, the eternal teenager.