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Jerry and Joanna: Salinger fans help author unlock her future

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Author J.D. Salinger received plenty of fan mail over the years, but stopped responding to them when the emotional burden became too great.

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Author J.D. Salinger received plenty of fan mail over the years, but stopped responding to them when the emotional burden became too great.

When you hear the word "memoir" these days, tales of hard luck and difficult childhoods undoubtedly spring to mind, transcribed by the likes of Augusten Burroughs, whose Running With Scissors detailed the abuse and neglect of his horribly unconventional childhood, or more recently Jeanette Walls' wildly popular The Glass Castle, about her coming to terms with her parents' mental illness and her own childhood demons.

My Salinger Year, Joanna Rakoff's second book, is a memoir of a different kind, and while its leading title may draw readers looking for salacious storytelling or Salinger gossip, they won't find it here.

This is a loving, quiet tribute to J.D. Salinger, the man and the writer, but mostly it's about those murky 20-something years in everyone's life, when figuring out what you want from life is often the most difficult part.

Rakoff is an American writer who lives in Massachusetts. Her first novel, A Fortunate Age, published in 2009, won her several awards, including the Goldberg Prize for Jewish Fiction by Emerging Writers.

It's 1996, and Joanna has just returned to New York following her completion of a master's degree in England. Although she had vague intentions of joining her college boyfriend in California and writing poetry, she somehow instead finds herself with a socialist boyfriend, Don, and employed as a glorified secretary at a literary agency,

The "Agency" is its own magical world, populated by near-fantastical characters like Joanna's chain-smoking, turban-wearing boss, a Devil Wears Prada-esque figure of indeterminable age, a mixture of "Don Corleone and Lauren Bacall." Hopelessly out of sync with the modern age, the Agency is oblivious -- or ambivalent -- to modern conventions, such as computers. Instead, Joanna uses a dictaphone to listen to cassette tapes of her boss's dictation, which she types out on a Selectric typewriter.

When describing the Agency and its denizens, Rakoff's storytelling is at its finest, her prose most poetic, such as her description of her boss's cigarette smoke "swirling out her door, like the trail from a genie's lamp."

Joanna is initally enchanted by the bizarro world of the Agency until, one fateful day, she is called in her boss's office and told, "We need to talk about Jerry." She is warned that she must "never, never, never" divulge Mr. Salinger's address or phone number.

It was not unusual for Salinger devotees to call the Agency, which represented him, with requests to get in touch with the author. In addition, there was the correspondence that arrived daily by the bagful, which Joanna is instructed to answer with a polite form letter, thanking the writer but explaining that Mr. Salinger did not wish to receive fan mail. Allegedly, Salinger tried for years to respond to the letters himself, but the emotional toll was too great.

As most readers will know, following his huge success with The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger famously lived in quiet seclusion for the remainder of his life, refusing interviews or contact with the media or his fans.

Rakoff's view of Salinger is a predominantly sympathetic one, of a sensitive, possibly lonely man in need of protection from the outside world. My Salinger Year is not really about Salinger, but it does offer insight into some of his idiosyncrasies, such as his "very strong feelings" about the font, paper, margins and binding used for his books. He also stipulated in his contracts that titles must appear vertically on the spines of his books (ostensibly so they would be easier to read on the bookshelf).

As Joanna delves deeper into the mailbag, she is struck by the genuine emotion in many of the letters -- some from war veterans like Salinger, but most from angry or disillusioned teenagers who often identified with Holden Caulfield, the brash young protagonist from The Catcher in the Rye. Joanna finds herself unable to simply rattle off another form letter in response to what seem such honest pleas for human connection.

It gradually dawns on Joanna that, like Holden Caulfield, she is surrounded by phoneys -- namely, Don, who quotes Proust freely (though Joanna doubts he has actually read all seven volumes) and whose much-touted "European friends" never seem to materialize. But she knows that in her own way, she too is a phoney, hiding out at the Agency.

She remembers a younger, more ambitious version of herself, one who "wanted to be extraordinary," "to write novels, to make films, to speak 10 languages and travel around the world." She has compromised, "because it's easier simply to pretend everything's all right."

Ultimately, Salinger -- or rather, his writing -- provides Joanna with the key to unlock her future, and the courage to be her "authentic self." Rakoff's writing is sentimental, but never cloyingly so -- without self-pity or cliché, but with the wistful tone of one looking back on a pivotal, albeit confusing, time in their life.

My Salinger Year is a memoir, yes, but it's also a beautifully rendered coming-of-age story, and a kind of love letter to Salinger and his work -- or even, some might say, a fan letter.


Lindsay McKnight works in the arts in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 19, 2014 A1

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Updated on Saturday, July 19, 2014 at 7:03 AM CDT: Formatting.

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