Joanna Rakoff’s ‘My Salinger Year’ Belongs in the Canon of Coming-of-Age Books

A slim, carefully observed memoir about her 23rd year, Joanna Rakoff’s new book My Salinger Year may be about the time she spent as an agent’s assistant in New York City, fielding calls from J.D. Salinger and answering his never-ending avalanche of fan mail, but it’s also a very good book about being young and unsure, making dumb decisions and figuring out how to be a person.

Despite the fact that “literary young women” are ubiquitous enough, as of now, to feel like a trend — from Lena Dunham and Girls to Sheila Heti and How Should a Person Be? — the books that make up the actual canon of stories about literary-minded young women making their way in New York aren’t, mostly, memoirs. Sure, there’s Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything (young women, publishing, New York), Mary McCarthy’s The Group, and even titles like Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York — all fiction. Sylvia Plath’s “potboiler,” The Bell Jar, is, of course, a nebulous exception.

Throughout Rakoff’s book, Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That” hangs in the air, namely the line: “All I mean is that I was very young in New York…” In My Salinger Year, Rakoff, who previously wrote the well-received sad young literary New Yorkers novel A Fortunate Age, is very young. She is 23, and she has started a job at a place heretofore called “The Agency.” (In Kara Bloomgarden-Smoke’s excellent Observer profile, she discusses the specifics with Rakoff.) While the year is 1996 and the Internet looms, menacingly, in the distance, Rakoff’s job is set in the past. She works on a typewriter. She uses a Dictaphone to type the Agent’s letters to people in the publishing world. She is not one of those assistants gunning for a bright literary future quite yet; rather, she is escaping from the future that she had laid out in front of her.

Having just finished her master’s in poetry, she was supposed to move to Berkeley with her boyfriend, but she stayed in New York, meeting a socialist named Don (a hilarious, pitch-perfect portrayal of any word-besotted girl’s pretentious intellectual boyfriend). The Agency provides solace and a modest salary.

It’s a familiar story. The glamor in it comes from the way that Rakoff’s life, which could be hurtling forward in the way that only the young want, is stuck at this point in the dusty, elegant, near-past. She has picked the right tone for this, elegiac and gentle and empathetic. There are a lot of ghosts about in The Agency, and of course, Rakoff ends up running into the biggest specter of all: J.D. Salinger. He is represented by Rakoff’s boss, and his popularity provides a series of tasks for the assistant. She has to answer his letters; she has to say no to any requests for use; she has to send any calls from Salinger directly to her boss.

It was an extraordinary year, as Rakoff’s job put her far more in touch with Salinger than the average assistant could have been. The reclusive author was about to approve a release of his story “Hapworth,” which facilitated a series of amusing phone calls and chance meetings. She gets sucked into the world of Salinger’s many fan letters, the kids writing and relating beyond belief to Holden, the veterans, like Salinger, who found some sort of solace in Holden’s anger and isolation.

Rakoff begins this book young and naïve, and the changes she goes through are what give this work its impact. She begins to assert her power at The Agency, in myriad ways. She learns about what’s the most human response to all the voices crying out for some sort of connection with Salinger. She writes about it beautifully, with an eye for the specific foibles of trying to make it in New York, able to sum up a life in mere sentences.

Her parents kept a summerhouse on the Vineyard and she spent weekends there, though she had no shortage of invitations to Sag Harbor and Woodstock and various parts of Conneticut, the houses of her high school friends, alums of various uptown private schools, their lives funded by never-mentioned trust funds… We met for dinner and coffee; we lolled on the couch in her tiny studio; we ventured to the cheap Russian salon down the street to have our nails painted a deep, blackish maroon, then stared at our transformed hands, at glamorous odds with our jeans and T-shirts, our scuffed boots.

The bildungsroman is a funny genre. When it concerns young women, it is often stories of innocence and experience, of girls who didn’t know anything but who, once they have sex, in many cases, know something new. It’s harder to write a gripping memoir about a time beyond losing your virginity, about being in your 20s, a period of your life when you’re very, very young but you feel like you’re old and beyond it. But in My Salinger Year, Rakoff has done the impossible; by looking at her agency year, she is able to pinpoint how, in stolen moments, that lost time in New York City, rooted in confusion and connection, made her into a writer.