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Client No. 1

A writer’s memoir as a literary agent’s assistant recalls a year of lucky contact with Salinger.

Written by Sudeep Paul |
July 28, 2014 6:22:32 pm

Book: My Salinger Year

Author: Joanna Rakoff

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Pages: 249

Price: Rs 399

An industry has sprung from J.D. Salinger’s January 2010 death. Not one, but two “Salinger books” have already been released this year — Thomas Beller’s J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist and Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year. Beller has written a clever biography that tries to beat the nemesis of the Salinger biographer: the twin facts that Salinger is not “biographable” and that whatever’s known about American literature’s greatest recluse is already public knowledge. Rakoff’s work, on the other hand, is not exactly a Salinger book. It isn’t quite a Künstlerroman either. We see just a year (1996) in the mid-twenties of the narrator, Joanna, who will eventually grow into poet and novelist Joanna Rakoff. But here, she has left graduate school in England and her college boyfriend in California to move back to New York in the vague pursuit of becoming a poet, with a few dollars from her affluent father in her pocket and afternoons staring at shop windows of sandwich chains beyond her means.

Joanna is twice lucky. She lands a job at a literary agency, when she “had no idea what a literary agency was”, nor shed her naïveté that the name of F.S. Fitzgerald or William Faulkner on book spines could tie those three entities —  books, literature, money —  in a neat, mutually sustaining bunch. The agency and her domineering boss remain unnamed. Both are well-known though — Phyllis Westberg of Harold Ober Associates (she’s still there) — and Rakoff didn’t mask their identities in her almost famous article in Slate following Salinger’s death. The Agency, with a capital “A”, is a New York institution and its most famous client is Salinger. Joanna’s boss is Salinger’s agent. Joanna didn’t know that, having “missed” reading Salinger when most people read him, somewhere between middle school and college. So when her boss sits her down, saying, “We need to talk about Jerry”, she thinks this might be Jerry Seinfeld.

The Agency, the real protagonist, is a sepulchral entity on Madison Avenue, its soul stuck in the 1940s and its technology in the ’60s, where computers are denied entry, whose most prized possession is a photocopier and fax machine acquired recently. At a place like this, nobody explains your work to you. Joanna is fortunate to have a senior colleague who shows her how to turn on the Selectric (IBM’s electronic typewriter range released in 1961) and the old Dictaphone with foot pedals. Assistant Joanna is nothing more than a glorified secretary — as her father would maintain.

So her boss’s explaining of the “Jerry” protocol is significant: “People are going to call and ask for his address, his phone number… They’ll try to get around you. They may be very persuasive, very manipulative. But you must never… never, never, never give out his address or phone number.” And if Jerry called? “He’s not going to call. And if he does… don’t keep him on the phone. He’s not calling to chat with you… Our job is not to bother him… You never call him. You never write to him.” Joanna’s other task is answering Jerry’s fan mails. The standard answer was terse and impersonal. Rakoff’s narrative, however, emerges from her breaking of this rule, when she starts directly answering the more heart-rending letters. This was the subject of her Slate article that this book has grown out of. The letters would come from World War II veterans re-reading the only human being who understood what they went through, people describing the solace a loved one battling cancer or having lost a child found in Salinger. Or from outright “crazies”. Or high-school girls.

The second instance of Joanna’s luck is that her year at the Agency coincides with Salinger’s decision to use a small press (Orchises Press, Virginia) to bring out his story “Hapworth 16, 1924” in book form. The plans were eventually aborted, of course. But this meant Salinger would not only call several times but even make a cameo appearance. His matter-of-fact emphasis on discipline would later influence Rakoff’s writing: “You’re a poet. You’re not a receptionist. You need to wake up and write every day.” In her Salinger year though, Joanna’s education came from the letters, prompting her to binge-read Salinger. She had thought Salinger would be “insufferably cute, aggressively quirky, precious”. What she discovers is that “Salinger was brutal. Brutal and funny and precise.” Finding her bearings as a writer, or leaving her pseudo-socialist and phoney new boyfriend, would all be easier here on.

Rakoff’s story of a young woman attaining real adulthood in New York doesn’t attempt to rank itself with Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. But, far from the darkness in Plath’s book, My Salinger Year is a poignant tale intelligently told, not peeking into Salinger but turning him into an agent of self-growth.

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