The six words sounded ominous, as if a budding psychopath was poised to bloom: “We need to talk about Jerry,” Joanna Rakoff’s boss told her on her first day of work. But “Jerry” was no fly-wing-pulling kid; he was J.D. Salinger, the fabled author of The Catcher in the Rye. In 1996, the year in which her memoir is set, Rakoff was the secretary to Phyllis Westberg, the CEO of Harold Ober Associates (Westberg and the company are discreetly left unnamed), an old-school Manhattan literary agency that represented Salinger, a demanding old man with an obsessive need for privacy and control.
Rakoff’s voice is so warm and inviting, her style so fluid and compact, that you will overlook the sense of déjà vu. At first, Rakoff dismisses Salinger’s books, which she has never read. She considers him “insufferably cute, aggressively quirky, precious.” But when she finally gets around to immersing herself in his fiction, she is quite moved.
There is nothing superficial about him; he is “brutal and funny and precise.” At last she understands why he has such an ardent fan base. One of Rakoff’s duties at the agency is to reply to them. Letters pile up from around the world; some are deranged (let us not forget that John Lennon’s killer identified with Holden Caulfield), but most just want to express their gratitude.
Salinger’s last story appeared in The New Yorker in 1965. A poorly crafted exercise in self-indulgence, it is described by one of Rakoff’s co-workers as “a sixty-page letter home from camp.” But her boss is shocked when Salinger wants a small press to publish it in book form. We know this will turn out badly. Like his character, Seymour Glass, who has scars on his hands from touching people, Salinger is impossibly thin-skinned. One wrong word, and you’re dead to him.
This sets off a chain of events that will lead to Rakoff meeting Salinger in the flesh. Until then, they had communicated only by phone. He seems pleasant enough, almost childlike, in fact. Rakoff is aware of the controversies surrounding him, including accusations of negligent parenting and sexual predatory behavior, but she doesn’t delve into them. Despite his uncompromising nature, Rakoff portrays Salinger as strangely vulnerable, like the agency that serves him.
The book is a hilarious account of a business run by dinosaurs. The agency has no computers. Rakoff types on a Selectric and operates a Dictaphone with foot pedals, as if she were Rose Mary Woods erasing a Watergate tape. “As with so many tools of efficiency from the 1950s and 1960s, it looked both charmingly archaic and spookily futuristic.” When pressure mounts on Rakoff’s boss to join the modern age, she reluctantly relents. She agrees to a single computer — “the office computer,” she calls it — that must be shared with everybody. But no one can use it without her permission. “I don’t want people on the World Wide Web all day, doing what they do,” she says insinuatingly.
At home Rakoff has to deal with her live-in lover, Don, a Marxist deadbeat that she latched onto after dumping her college boyfriend. Don is obviously wrong for her, but alas, she doesn’t accept this reality right away. Meanwhile we are entertained by his colossal self-centeredness and pretentiousness.
Rakoff’s father, a stand-up comic-turned-dentist, will also leave heads shaking. He reveals to her that she owes thousands of dollars in student loans that he had taken out for her by forging her signature. A less dutiful daughter would have called the cops. But from then on she is suspicious when she visits them.
“What might my parents spring on me this time? A preschool bill? Back pay for my childhood nanny?”
There is a happy ending, of sorts. Rakoff escapes from the stultifying security of the agency and devotes herself to her own writing. She married, had children and published a well-received novel. The marriage eventually collapsed, but she got a second chance with her college boyfriend, a man with apparently bottomless reserves of patience and forgiveness. Salinger would have approved.
Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.