There’s a reason Joanna Rakoff didn’t call her memoir My Year With Salinger. Beyond the most basic small-talk, largely delivered while directing phone calls to her boss, Rakoff didn’t really interact with J.D. Salinger during the 1990s, when she was working as an assistant for his literary agency (known here simply as the Agency) and responding to his mail. So there aren’t many revelations about the elusive author, beyond what Rakoff gathers from tender fan letters about The Catcher in the Rye. (Salinger even gets a note from Winona Ryder. Maybe his admirers took Holden Caulfield’s claim that good books make you ”wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it” too literally.) Still, there’s something Salingeresque about her book: It’s a vivid story of innocence lost.
My Salinger Year chronicles Rakoff’s coming of age during her first adult job, and the details will ring true to any overeducated, underpaid postgrad who ever tried to make it in New York. She learns the harsh financial repercussions of buying an $8 sandwich. She makes sad grown-up compromises, spending less time writing and more time working to support her unemployed boyfriend. One night, she comes home to find her roommate sobbing, having eaten a pound of spaghetti, and realizes why the roommate is scared: ”No one — no mother, sister, roommate, professor, boyfriend, anyone — was there to monitor her habits and behaviors…. She woke up, went to work, came home, alone.” That’s the loneliness of life after college, perfectly explained.
Rakoff is such a keen observer that it’s surprising when she’s totally unself-conscious. She can be vain, describing herself flatteringly while pointing out the acne scars on a co-worker who’s unfailingly kind to her. And she can be cruel, dishing secrets that aren’t hers to share, as when she reveals the ugly details of her boss’ lover’s suicide. (She never uses the boss’ name, but she ID’d the agency in a Slate piece, so it’s not hard to find.) But when she’s crafting heartfelt replies to Salinger’s letters, it’s easy to understand her experience: the great ambitions and failures, the loves and losses, and Holden Caulfield’s own favorite cause — a young person’s never-ending battle against the phonies. B+