‘An utter pleasure’ – My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

msyjrI would imagine most people would be drawn to this book by the presence of the surname in the title. Now that the big man is no longer with us, there is no longer the sense of controversy surrounding a memoir as there once was. Every book about Salinger doesn’t have to come laden with scandal, dowsed in fury, replete with ruminations on what he was actually up to. We know stuff now, don’t we? We know that there were more books, written in reclusion. We are supposed to see them one day (although the proposed 2015 release date for the first book, whatever the first book turns out to be, doesn’t look likely now does it, unless they sneak it out in December).

Rakoff’s memoir is a sweet, sad and gentle affair. Imagine Girls by way of Mad Men (in that, curiously, even though Rakoff writes of fairly recent history in New York, the life of a young woman as she comes to term with her first job in what is by any standards a rather curious place, it feels as if it talks of a New York far previous, viewed through the wrong end of a telescope). She lives in a grotty apartment with her boyfriend Don (a wannabe writer himself, busy writing his novel throughout these pages, and a man with opinions, a man who sometimes doesn’t seem to give room to his girlfriend, who you imagine he might refer to as his little lady), worries about the pressures of distance on what was once a close friendship, misses her college boyfriend who she thinks she still loves. We also share her initiations into New York life (her first day on the job, a snowstorm all but closes the city, she doesn’t get the prerequisite call to stay home so makes her way in and glimpses that most bustle-y of cities, without bustle).

But the book is My Salinger Year, isn’t it? My Salinger Year. What of Salinger? Well, we first meet him as a vast absence. Joanna’s boss telling her the things she should never do when Jerry rings, Joanna accepting without knowing who the hell Jerry is. Joanna (she feels like a Joanna, as you read, so intimate are we with her inner workings, with her life) hasn’t even read Salinger at this point, only knows him through what friends have told her (in other words that he’s twee, that he’s the kind of writer who means a lot when you are a teenager) – when she finally ‘discovers’ Salinger later in the book, she gives him a wide-eyed appraisal, the kind of appraisal Salinger fans will lap up, I think.  Eventually Jerry surfaces, calling, shouting on the phone, deaf apparently but resistant to technology that could help, provided by his wife, so Joanna is told. He gets her name wrong, she worries about correcting him, at some point it is corrected, out of sight. He learns she writes poetry, he thinks this shows spirituality, warms to her. Eventually, she meets him, briefly. The reader gets a sense of Salinger refracted via the narrator. It feels like enough.

There is another unexpected side to the Salinger year, though, and that is her responsibility to answer his fans, a job her bosses inform her involves sending a form letter. There are dozens of letters in a drawer, dozens of letters pouring in every day. Requests from principles, missives from war veterans re-reading The Catcher in the Rye, notes from schoolgirls wanting to know if Franny is pregnant, correspondence from young men writing in Holden-ese. Joanna begins with the form letter but (of course) gently enters into a conversation of sorts with some of these people. You expect her to get in trouble at some point (especially when certain writers take issue with her, questioning her name, questioning her right to get between them and Salinger, making her question the validity of both what she is doing and also what she is being asked to do). The fact that you worry about her goes some way towards illustrating just how warmly you come to feel about the narrator, I think.

The book is an immense pleasure. Warm, as we’ve said, informative, a sort of literary hug from a person who (you can tell) not only enjoys Salinger but enjoys books, the life of books, the world of the writer, the journey of reading. Fans of Salinger tend to approach these kinds of things with trepidation. We’re here to say you don’t have to on this occasion. Jump in like a three year old into a muddy puddle.

Any Cop?: My Salinger Year is an utter pleasure. You might even like it if you don’t have strong feelings about Salinger either way.


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