Great year to end an era

Coming-of-age story told with insight and charm, writes Nicky Pellegrino.

Joanna Rakoff describes vividly that time when you are trying to find your place in the world.
Joanna Rakoff describes vividly that time when you are trying to find your place in the world.

At first glance it doesn't seem much on which to base a memoir. Fresh out of college, Joanna Rakoff lands a job assisting JD Salinger's literary agent. She speaks to the great man on the phone several times but meets him only once. From that experience Rakoff has managed to conjure a book she has called My Salinger Year (Bloomsbury).

It doesn't tell us very much more than is already known about the great and famously reclusive author, but My Salinger Year is insightful and revealing in other ways. It is a coming-of-age story and an account of the end of an era.

Rakoff arrives in New York dreaming of becoming a poet. To pay the rent she finds a job at the oldest literary agency in town, Harold Ober Associates -- which she refers to in the book as "the Agency" -- as an assistant to the woman who represents Salinger.

It is 1996 but in the dark, book-lined rooms there are no computers, only a pedal-operated Dictaphone and an electric typewriter on which Rakoff must tap out the stock response to the Salinger fan letters that flood in from people touched by his work.

Some are written in the style of Catcher In The Rye's Holden Caulfield, others share intensely personal feelings. To all of them, Rakoff is to say the same thing: Mr Salinger does not wish to receive mail from his readers. She cannot forward any notes to him. By day, Rakoff types away in the antiquated offices, by night she hangs out with her unsuitable boyfriend, Don, who is writing an intense novel. She gets around to reading Salinger's work and finds herself as affected by it as any of the fans whose mail she opens. She is involved in a bid to publish a Salinger book that never comes off.

That's about it really, except that Rakoff describes so vividly that painful, wonderful time when you're young and trying to find your place in the world. Her story is one that resonates. She is short on money but full of potential. Friendships are shifting, people are changing, everything seems uncertain. She lives in an unheated flea-pit of an apartment, can barely afford a coffee and a sandwich, and the world she wants to be part of is all around her yet just out of reach.

Also, Rakoff is respectful. She does make fun of the old-fashioned Agency and the boss who struggles to cope with the way business is changing, but it's done very gently indeed because, clearly, she loves what they represent: their history and dignity, the last remnants of publishing as it used to be.

Rakoff has gone on to be a journalist as well as a published poet and novelist. Her writing here is insightful -- leaning more towards the journalistic than the poetic -- and it feels emotionally honest. My Salinger Year is a charming book and a quietly rewarding read.

- Herald on Sunday

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