Endpaper Literary Review

“Hello, hello, this is Jerry Salinger”

Joanna Rakoff’s memoir, My Salinger Year (Alfred Knopf, June 2014), is about the year she spent at the literary agency that represented J.D. Salinger, answering his fan mails. What she didn’t know when she reported for work at Harold Ober Associates was that Salinger was their client. Later, her friends would be astonished that she hadn’t known this. Though Harold Ober had many famous authors (Agatha Christie, Faulkner, Fitzgerald), they were more famous for being Salinger’s agent. The book is set in the late 1990s; Joanna was 23, fresh out of college and eager to be part of New York’s literary world.

A literature graduate just out of college, Joanna wanted to work as an editor for a publisher but accidentally found her first job as an assistant at a venerable literary agency that was deliberately old fashioned, many thought in deference to Salinger’s wishes. The agency continued to use typewriters, Dictaphones and letters instead of computers, recorders and e-mails. Her boss at the agency smoked in the office, wore huge, heavy dark glasses and spoke in a ‘low, patrician voice’. Though the author does not name her, it is very likely Phyllis Westberg who succeeded the legendary Dorothy Olding. (Salinger partly dedicated Nine Stories to Olding. She was also Ira Levin’s agent. He dedicated Sliver to her)

When she calls Joanna into her office and tells her she must never (“never, never, never”) ever give out Jerry’s address or phone number to anyone, Joanna nods though she has no idea who Jerry is. Only after she steps out of the office and sees a row of Salinger titles on the shelf does it hit her. “Oh, I thought, that Jerry.” What is just as interesting is that Joanna Rakoff had never read Salinger. “I had no interest in Salinger’s fairy tales of Old New York, in precocious children expounding on Zen koans or fainting on sofas, exhausted by the tyranny of the material world…I was not interested in hyper-articulate seven-year-olds who quoted from the Bhagavad Gita.”

And to her, ironically, falls the task of answering J.D. Salinger’s fan mails. Or at least reading carefully through them. Because the only response the agency instructs her to give each correspondent is the same form letter. ‘Dear So-and-So: Many thanks for your recent letter to J.D. Salinger. As you may know, Mr. Salinger does not wish to receive mail from his readers. Thus, we cannot pass your kind note on to him. We thank you for your interest in Mr. Salinger’s books. Best, The Agency’. The form letter was dated March 3, 1963. And, in 1996, the same letter was still being sent out verbatim in response to all mails to Salinger!

After sending many form letters, Joanna begins answering some of them; the ones she thinks deserve a more adequate and sensitive response. From her desk, she would sometimes hear her boss speaking loudly on the phone to Jerry — he had become a little deaf and one had to shout. Then one day what her boss said would never happen does happen: the phone rings and rings and when no one picks it up, Joanna answers. On the other end is Jerry Salinger shouting “HELLO? HELLO? WHO IS THIS?” “This is Joanna, I’m the new assistant.” “Well, nice to meet you, Suzanne.” The call is short and, before ringing off, Salinger says, “I hope we meet in person, someday.” “Me too. Have a great day.” “YOU TOO!” Many months later, he appears in person, walking unexpectedly into the office “on a blustery November afternoon, a tall, slender man … his silver hair parted deeply on one side, combed and Brylcreemed in the style of the 1950s and 1960s. No, I thought, though even from afar I could see that this man had large, dark eyes and truly enormous ears, the sort of ears I know knew he’d also bequeathed to poor, doomed Seymour Glass.” By this time, Joanna had read Salinger and had fallen in love with his work, especially with Franny.

There is a detailed account of the Hapworth story (how this unpublished novella nearly came to be published) — this time told from the other side, the Salinger side. By all outsider accounts, it looked like Salinger was furious, but Rakoff reveals how he really took it: a few days after the publishing deal was off, Salinger calls the agency, happens to get Joanna and, in talking about it, he isn’t angry, perhaps just a little sad. He was, you get the impression, once again quite happy not to publish.

There’s a very moving chapter towards the end when she learns of his death many years later. She reaches out at once for the Glass stories on her shelf and reads from them, and begins to sob. And then notes, “Salinger’s stories, to a one, are anatomies of loss, every inch of them.” Even The Catcher… is “a portrait in grief”. The Glass family is “a family in mourning, never to recover. A world in mourning, never to recover.”

We should be grateful to Joanna Rakoff for this precisely and beautifully written memoir, not only for how wonderfully readable it is, but also for making Salinger shine once more; here, after so many recent unkind accounts of this intensely private author is a warm, generous and truer portrait that shows Salinger to be the tender, wise and affectionate writer we always knew him to be.

My Salinger Year; Joanna Rakoff, Knopf Publishing Group, Rs. 339.

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