Like so many before him, director Shane Salerno tried to solve the riddle that was J.D. Salinger, "the Howard Hughes of his time," in his 2013 documentary, Salinger. Joanna Rakoff doesn't attempt to demystify the myth in her new memoir, My Salinger Year (out June 4 from Knopf). Instead, she describes witnessing Salinger's obsessive fandom, showing how the man behind one of the greatest teen-angst novels of all time - The Catcher in the Rye - influenced so many lives, including her own.
Fresh out of grad school, Rakoff, 23, was hired as an assistant at New York's Harold Ober Associates, which represented Salinger. It was 1996, and Rakoff describes the agency as a place with outdated Dictaphones and IBM typewriters, and agents smoking in their offices.
"We need to talk about Jerry," Rakoff's boss told her upon their first meeting.
The author wasn't even familiar with Salinger's work when she was assigned the task of answering his fan mail by using a form letter from the 1960s. (The famously reclusive Salinger had spent decades in self-imposed exile in New Hampshire.) They'd arrive on Hello Kitty and Snoopy stationery from as far as Sri Lanka, written by school kids who wanted help with their homework or romantic advice.
"If I had to pick the largest group," Rakoff, now 41, says from her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, "it would be teenagers and people in their early 20s. The teenagers would employ Holden's voice. Sometimes they did a really amazing job."
Some letters were deeply moving confessionals from mothers of deceased children, or World War II veterans who felt a kinship with Salinger.
"They were pouring out their thoughts and feelings and emotions and stories, some of them truly believing that they might get to Salinger, and they were talking to him," Rakoff says. "I thought, 'These letters are never getting to him.' They're just going into a black hole. It was difficult for me to throw them away."
She ultimately kept a few.
Rakoff eventually met Salinger at the agency - the literary world's equivalent of a Bigfoot sighting.
"He just kind of arrived," she recalls. "The last photo that I'd seen of him was taken decades before, with his black hair. And there he was, this white-haired man in his 70s with a lined face. But it was clear it was him. I thought I was going to have a heart attack."
After reading his books, Rakoff herself became one of the faithful.
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"I just thought that based on his popularity and the titles of some of his stories that he was writing these cutesy, charming, silly trifles and fairy tales. When I finally read them, his stories were brutal and beautiful. I thought The Catcher in the Rye was about some teenager, but it's really an anatomy of loss and melancholy."
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