My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff
I'm reading a lot during the pandemic, including a mix of different kinds of stories like beach reads, non-fiction, historical fiction, and memoirs. I started The Nantucket Inn by Pamela M. Kelley (I wish I could vacation there, right now); I bought Big Summer by Jennifer Weiner. I finished Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan, a well-written novel about a woman trying desperately to belong in a quiet upstate, college community with a new baby and family issues after leaving bustling Brooklyn, New York; I devoured the interesting non-fiction work by James Nestor entitled Breath (myself being a semi-mouth breather and thinking that I really need to breathe better), the mystical The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I've downloaded Girl, Woman, Other (a Booker Prize Winner) by Bernardine Evaristo on my Kindle, along with The Dutch House by Ann Patchett, and All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood. I can't wait!
As I sat and consumed some of the above, I found myself marveling that the characters were even going out to dinner, attending wedding parties, walking down crowded city streets, lunching indoors... dating. They were hugging and kissing, not wearing masks and never social distancing. The only book I was connecting to was Breath.
As I plowed through the pages, I was stuck in today's reality, struck by how much the world had changed and wondering how long this new normal will last. I guess I could have read books like: Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez or The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton, Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter, or re-read Albert Camus's The Plague. Maybe then would I stop making comparisons about "what is not" and "what is". I did manage to pre-order a new novel about Covid-19 and am waiting for its arrival.
That being said, I recently finished the funny memoir: My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff, published by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House LLC, in 2014. The novel is set in 1996 and has nothing to do with plague or influenza, but everything to do with being young and broke and green when just out of college -- a situation a lot of us can relate to. Joanna lands her first job out of grad school at a somewhat stuffy and old-fashioned, better yet "venerable", NYC literary agency while knowing nothing about what a literary agency is and does. She knows a lot about literature and has a keen desire to get her feet wet, newly graduated with a masters degree in English. She has just dumped her loyal and reliable grad-school boyfriend in California for "exciting" Don in NYC who wants to be a writer (perhaps Don is too much of a Don Juan?). She wears a lot of plaid, wool, and turtle necks as it is winter in Manhattan and of course, 1996. On her first day of work in the hallowed halls of this dim-lit literary agency which would become her workplace for the next year, there is a blizzard. Not being on the call chain or tree, she struggles into an empty office. Later as she becomes more comfortable, she begins to take liberties at her job in order to excel, to be challenged, and to make herself into a writer. She asks other agents if she could read their submissions; she answers author fan mail with emotional intelligence (although she is only supposed to send back generic form letters). She manages to land her own client! At her writing endeavor, Joanna succeeds more at helping others than herself, including her eye-wandering, socialist boyfriend, Don, for whom I did not care. Don is an interesting character, though, who allows Joanna the chance to discover what's right and what's wrong in a relationship.
"We were girls, of course, all of us girls, emerging from the 6 train at Fifty-First Street and walking past the Waldorf-Astoria ... all of us clad in variations on a theme -- the neat skirt and sweater, redolent of Sylvia Plath at Smith - each element purchased by parents in some comfortable suburb, for our salaries were so low we could barely afford our rent, much less lunch in the vicinities of our offices ... sharing floor-throughs with other girls like us, assistants at other agencies or houses or the occasional literary nonprofit. All day we sat, our legs crossed at the knee ... answering the call of our bosses, ushering in writers with the correct mixture of enthusiasm and remove, never belying the fact that we got into this business not because we wanted to fetch glasses of water for visiting writers but because we wanted to be writers ourselves. ..." Joanna finds herself mulling over the similarities between the job description of a secretary and her own assistant position. She spends inordinate amounts of time working a Dictaphone. She types, and she types, and she types, though she is not proficient at it. She answers the phone. The office has no computer despite it being 1996.
At first I was unaware that what I was reading was actually a memoir until I got into it and wondered how the author could use "real" people in her novel, like the reclusive author and literary giant, J.D. Salinger, or the mostly young adult writer, Judy Blume, whom I grew up reading. I came across this memoir because I had misplaced my copy of The Catcher in the Rye and went on Amazon to order a new one. My lost copy had a plain red cover with nothing on it but the title; the new one I just ordered featured a galloping horse. Soon from the memoir I would learn just one of J.D. Salinger's idiosyncrasies, how he preferred no embellished covers, sewn binding, and his name printed horizontally on the spine of his covers. I enjoyed reading about the 1990s, when I, too, was in the working world and an English major and familiar with typing on an occasional Selectric typewriter to address envelopes. I had also dreamed of writing a novel but was a real estate appraiser instead, sleeping in an L.L. Bean sleeping bag under the covers of my bed in my freezing apartment in winter. My first apartment had plumbing unlike Joanna's Brooklyn apartment, which was missing a sink and a heat source. I got nostalgic about a seemingly simpler time before marriage, kids, and Covid-19! I, too, was broke and wore a lot of plaid. I remember rolling pennies to buy gas for my maroon Ford Escort (this was in the late 1980s, mind you, my being ten years older than Joanna).
As I googled more about this memoir, I learned that the novel was made into a movie with one of my favorite actor's, Sigourney Weaver, playing Joanna's peculiar boss, who was one of the more unique characters in this memoir, who had been in the business for sometime, sprouting large owl-like glasses which often hid her expression, who mostly barked out orders and smoked lots of cigarettes, and ... well ... represented, was agent to, the infamous J.D. Salinger, whom she called "Jerry." Even though the only connection Joanna had to any Jerry in NYC was to Jerry Seinfeld of the popular TV show, Seinfeld, Joanna embraced this connection and proceeded to have small conversations with Salinger on the phone and to return his fan mail. She had never read any of his books, making the habit of reading dead authors rather than live ones. However, one weekend, she completes a marathon reading of all of "Jerry's" books-- in bed, in the bathtub, and in restaurants and coffee shops after her less than charming boyfriend, Don, disinvites her to his best friend's wedding -- to have guy time. Ah, then she understands ...
"Have you read Salinger?" Joanna writes in the memoir. "Very likely you have. Can you recall that moment you encountered Holden Caulfield for the first time? The sharp intake of breath as you realized that this was a novel, a voice, a character, a way of telling a story, a view of the world unlike any you'd previously encountered. ..."
My Salinger Year, by Joanna Rakoff. I highly recommend it and really enjoyed it. How exciting to have had Joanna's work experience your first!