Seeking J.D. Salinger: new books by Rakoff, Beller

The author of "The Catcher in the Rye"

The author of "The Catcher in the Rye" is the subject of two new books. (Credit: AP / Amy Sancetta)

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MY SALINGER YEAR, by Joanna Rakoff. Alfred A. Knopf, 249 pp., $25.95.

I thought I'd had it up to here with J.D. Salinger. The books, the characters, the cultural impact, the life, the death, the scandals, the documentaries, the biographies, the never-before-seen books to be published after 2015 -- will it never end?

No, it won't. So thank heaven for Joanna Rakoff's delightful memoir, "My Salinger Year," which has refreshed my interest in Salinger to the point that I'm hunting around for a copy of "Franny and Zooey."

In the late 1990s, Rakoff -- a poet and author of "A Fortunate Age," a 2009 novel featuring an ensemble of Oberlin graduates living in Brooklyn -- landed her first job out of grad school, working for a venerable literary agency in Manhattan. (Although she never names the agency, it's no secret that Salinger was represented by Phyllis Westberg of Harold Ober Associates.) The book opens with a rhapsodic invocation to the underpaid, skirt-and-sweatered masses she joined:

"There were hundreds of us, thousands of us, carefully dressing in the gray morning light of Brooklyn, Queens, the Lower East Side, leaving our apartments weighed down by tote bags heavy with manuscripts, which we read as we stood in line at the Polish bakery, the Greek deli, the corner diner, waiting to order our coffee.... All day we sat, our legs crossed at the knee, on our swivel chairs, 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."

Rakoff's employers are old-school to the nth degree. Typewriters, carbon paper and Dictaphones prevail; a telex machine has only recently been replaced by a fax; late in the game, a single computer is dubiously brought in and closely monitored lest employees should think to check their personal email. In addition to the endless typing of her boss' correspondence, Rakoff's job is to deal with Salinger's fan mail, which he had stopped receiving years earlier.

Rakoff is amazed and overwhelmed by the passion, angst and adulation in the letters, from adolescents, from war veterans, from people of all ages the world over. Though she has never read a word of Salinger -- what does she care about "fairy tales of Old New York" or "hyper-articulate seven-year-olds who quoted from the Bhagavad Gita"? -- the letters, which often imitate Salinger's style, peppered with words like "phony" and "crummy," deeply engage her. Though she has been ordered to use a form reply, she begins to write personal responses over her own signature. Meanwhile, she is also fielding calls from "Jerry" and talking to him about poetry.

Outside the office, Rakoff's life is a typical 20-something mess, including a nasty writer-boyfriend, an uneasily shifting landscape of friends and a horrible unheated apartment that sounds like something out of Jeannette Walls' "The Glass Castle." At a particularly low point, her boyfriend off at a wedding she's not been invited to, she takes home the Salinger oeuvre and reads all four books in one rainy weekend. To her surprise, she falls in love. "Have you read Salinger?" she asks us, finally getting it -- the profound identification she encountered in all those letters.

"Maybe you, like me, found yourself sobbing with recognition, with relief, that there was someone else who had felt such exhaustion, such despair, such frustration with everything, with everyone, including yourself. ... Someone else who was trying to figure out how to live in this world."

The inspiration Rakoff takes away from this experience not only energizes the denouement of her Salinger year but lifts right off the page. "I want to write like that," she fiercely concludes, and she gets a bit closer than most.

 

A good but not great 'Escape'

"J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist" (New Harvest, $20) follows Thomas Beller's attempts to research the mysteries of the Salinger biography, in the spirit of Geoff Dyer's D.H. Lawrence book, "Out of Sheer Rage." Traveling to the key locations of his subject's life, Beller meditates on Salinger's Park Avenue childhood and stormy school years, first marriage to an ex-Nazi, apprenticeship at Story magazine and The New Yorker and intensely oppositional relationship with biographers and the media.

Some of the best parts of "The Escape Artist" are its asides -- a funny list of possible reasons that "neighbors get on each other's nerves" and a frank assessment of the literary style of Joyce Maynard, who published a controversial 1998 memoir of living with Salinger. Beller has an entertaining style, but "The Escape Artist" is strictly for Salinger fans.

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