My Salinger Year, Joanna Rakoff
5 nicotine infused pretzels – which sounds disgusting. Don’t eat those pretzels.
Joanna is back in New York and, frankly, directionless. She takes a job as an assistant at a literary agency. It’s the late ’90s and the publishing industry in on the cusp of a real change. The Agency, though, is holding steady to that ’50s vibe. Martini lunches, smoking in the office, dictophones and typewriters, the Agency is essentially a time capsule. A time capsule I would very much like to live in.
Joanna’s tasks include typing dictation and replying to the Salinger letters. Before that is revealed, though, we get a hilarious scene between she and her boss.
Boss: Don’t talk to Jerry. Don’t talk to anyone ABOUT Jerry. Don’t give out any information about Jerry.
Joanna: Dafuq is Jerry?
The scene is made more hilarious if you imagine boss as a cross between Lucille Bluth and Amy Sedaris, which I do.
Joanna quickly learns that Jerry is J.D. Salinger, and he is one of the Agency’s oldest clients. If you know anything about Salinger, you’ll know that this is a bit of an understatement, but he was kind of weird. He spent most of his life living as a recluse in Cornish, New Hampshire. This isn’t in the book, but I’m a fan, so I just sort of know this, but the entire town worked together to protect his privacy, which is kind of nice.
Before the John Lennon assassination, Salinger tried to reply to fan mail personally, but the incident did a number on him. Afterward, all correspondence went to the Agency, who had assistants reply with a form letter. The problem is, Joanna, feeling a little lost in her own life, related to the kids talking about Holden as if he were a real person. An angsty teen who had not time for phonies; she was a lost 20 something living with a phony. She could relate maybe a little more than she wanted to admit. So, she took the letters personally and began replying personally.
The strangest part of the book for me was that Joanna had somehow never read a Salinger book before. He is such a teenage read for me. I was sixteen when I first discovered Catcher in the Rye and I have loved it ever since, devouring the other Salinger books in my late teens and early twenties. So, like, three years ago. [Insert winky face emoji].
I was given Catcher by my 11th grade English teacher. He’d been instructed to get rid of his old class set. You see, the book is banned, and we were expecting a visit from the Superintendent. So, Mr. Moody – my king, long may he reign – handed the books to us, his AP students. He also gave us a free reading day the following day. When the Super showed up, there we were, all reading our new to us copies of this book that’s been challenged in schools since its release. Mr. Moody explained that we were on a free day, that he had not assigned the reading. He may have also yelled, “Try firing me. I have tenure. And I’m gay!” I told you he’s the greatest.
That act of rebellion, that moment of sticking it to the man for trying to censor us, was such a Holden thing to do. I like to think that Salinger would have loved it.