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Book Review: ‘My Salinger Year’ by Joanna Rakoff

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My Salinger Year

In his novel The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger’s character Holden Caulfield uses the phrase “quiet emotional” in place of the more typical “quite emotional.” My Salinger Year is a quiet emotional memoir about how Salinger helped a young woman, Joanna Rakoff, find her role, her place, her calling in life – which was to become a writer.

“Have you read Salinger?” Rakoff asks the reader. “Very likely you have. Can you recall the moment you encountered Holden Caulfield for the first time? The sharp intake of breath as you realized this was a novel, a voice, a character, a way of telling a story, a view of the world unlike any you’d previously encountered…I loved Holden, in his grief-fueled rage.”

My Salinger Year is a comfortable, entertaining and engaging story that does not have pretensions of being cinematic. However, Rakoff writes quite well, as in this selection, about the difference between Marc, a friend who is getting married, and Don, Rakoff’s then-boyfriend (and a sad choice of one):

“You ready for the big day?” Don asked Marc, patting him on the back. He was trying for cheer, for bonhomie, which gave him the aspect of an actor in a community theater production…

“I don’t know,” said Marc, with an enormous smile. When he smiled, he seemed to radiate pure waves of goodwill and genuine happiness. This was, I supposed, the difference between Marc and Don: Marc was fully at home in the world, content with life. He needed, he wanted, nothing more than what he had. Don wanted everything, everyone; Don wanted and wanted.

Although this true tale is about Rakoff’s work at a literary agency at the start of her professional career, it’s also a story about what happens when she leaves behind her “right guy” in Berkeley, and takes up with Don in Manhattan. Don is so clearly and absolutely wrong for her. The reader will feel some frustration while reading about her out-of-phase life with Don, a person who refused, without explanation, to take her to his best friend’s wedding.

The writer is now happily married to the “right” person, but she’s quite forthcoming about the fact that she made a key mistake in the game of love as a young woman. Fortunately, she was able to escape into the writings of J.D. Salinger, as she did on the weekend of the wedding that she was blocked from attending.

“All through that weekend, even as I ripped through his entire oeuvre, I kept having to put the books down and breathe. He shows us his characters at their most bald, bares their most private thoughts, most telling actions. It’s almost too much. Almost.”

Rakoff only met Salinger once but spoke to him often on the telephone. He convinced her to do what she needed to do for herself – for her own happiness. His advice convinced her to leave the safety and security of the agency job after just 12 months. It was a job that would get her no closer to writing than reading manuscripts.

Near the end of My Salinger Year, Rakoff learns of Salinger’s death and reacts to it in a touching way. Salinger was, and will remain, her rescuer, her larger-than-life hero.

Salinger was an artist who touched many people through his work. He continues to reach and touch them to this day, as when high school students experience The Catcher in the Rye or Franny and Zooey for the first time. It was his work and its effect on others that exhausted him and caused him to seek comfort in isolation: “For years… he’d tried to respond to his fans. But the emotional toll grew too great.”

While Salinger may have remained as distant as Joe DiMaggio in his later years, there’s no denying the fact that he left behind his bold, major impact on the world of literature.

“Salinger was not cutesy. His work was not nostalgic. There were no fairy tales about child geniuses traipsing the streets of Old New York.”

“Salinger was nothing like I’d thought. Nothing.”

“Salinger was brutal. Brutal and funny and precise. I loved him. I loved it all.”

You may love this book.

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About Joseph Arellano

Joseph Arellano wrote music reviews in college for the campus newspaper and FM radio station. In recent years he has written book reviews for several publications including San Francisco Book Review, Sacramento Book Review, Portland Book Review and the Tulsa Book Review. He also maintains the Joseph's Reviews blog. For Blogcritics, Joseph writes articles about music, books, TV programs, running and walking shoes, and athletic gear. He believes that most problems can be solved through the purchase of a new pair of running shoes.
  • bliffle

    I read “Catcher In The Rye” when I was 18 and just starting at university. It was 1955. I didn’t like it because I thought it was shallow and the protaganist was not sympathetic. I thought he was spoiled and self-indulgent. I was a pretty experienced reader at the time, so I was surprised that such a well-known book seemed so poor to me. I felt little in common with Holden, his experiences were not mine and his actions were not mine. It’s still surprising to me that the book is so well-regarded.

    Even when I re-read the book years later I couldn’t discover it’s charm. To me, there were so many more laudable books to be read that it was hard to justify spending even a little time pondering why “Catcher” fell short with me. Why did it fall short? I think it’s because our experiences were so different. For one thing, I always worked: every day since I was 10, which was both a burden and an opportunity. My dad took me to a family farm and I started working, which I loved. But I didn’t like farm life because it was so boring when there was no work, and you just waited for corn to grow. Before the REA brought electricity to farms we went to bed at 6PM in winter: nothing else to do. Looked forward to morning so you could go out and fetch the eggs, milk the cows, feed the horse, dump the manure on the manure pile, etc. My friend Arnie studied his college engineering books by lantern light on his family farm. But a farm was wonderful for a boy because you could do ANYTHING on a farm! You had to solve puzzles, like where did the hens lay their eggs today? They almost never laid eggs in the box nests that were set out for them because they knew the farm kid would take them away. So they laid eggs in hidden and out-of-the-way places. Fun fun fun! You could open the creaky door on a farm shed and see the amazing inside of a blacksmiths shed, with an old hearth, iron prongs and pliers and benders and hammers and anvils and other wonderful toys. I looked forward to the day when the farmer would fire up the hearth to bend some horseshoes from bar stock, or mend a pot with a broken handle by soldering or brazing. Farmers could do things that nobody else could do, especially in the city! The great American scientists came from farms, and they left their marks on the lingo, with potential “wells”, etc. Philo Farnsworth invented the most important feature of modern life, the ‘raster’, when he looked down the rows of potato furrows and realized he could draw pictures by introducing modest disturbances into the regularity of the rows, just as a gopher might.

    Poor Holden Caulfield! He was a deprived child.

    Later, we had whole armies of Holdens invading cities thinking they would prosper, somehow, in the deprived environment. Like fish, thrown up on the shore, desperately gasping for air, the fisherman wondering how long it would take for a fish to evolve proper lungs, like him. Because the fishermans vanity prompted him to think himself the apex of Creation.

    Poor Holden! No big white rock out in the field that he couldn’t climb now, but knew he’d be able to climb when he was as big as George, his age, from a local farm, so he’d keep trying and learn rock climbing.

    Poor Holden! Too many people around! Farm kids would joke that if they got a visitor they’d tie him to a chair so he couldn’t get away and they could talk all day and night!

    Poor Holden! Never drove a farm truck or a tractor, which every farm kid learned to do when their feet reached the pedals, even if it required wooden blocks between the foot and the pedal! The chore of driving a tractor became the thrill of commanding a powerful machine and learning How Things Work.

    We could say that Holdens parents deprived him of an education by ‘liberating’ him from farm life. But even in the cities kids enriched their lives with adventures and explorations. Maybe walking 5 miles to get to a big house being built that we could run around in and climb up and down and in and out. “Don’t get your self killed and be home by dinner time!” were the only rules. Of course, the big unspoken rule was: don’t embarass your family by drowning in the river, or, worse yet, requiring the cops to call your folks!

  • bliffle

    Salinger wrote a short story called “For Esme, with Love And Squalor” which I read before “Catcher..” and LOVED! Which may explain some of my disappointment with Holden Caulfield. I think that “Esme” was published in Evergreen press as a collection of short stories in an excellent paperback series that was a little more expensive than regular paperbacks but well worth it for the quality of writers. Maybe Lawrence Ferlinghetti was an editor. Anyway, Evergreen was a terrific gateway to modern writing and, IIRC, was where I discovered Samuel Beckett, who became my favorite by age 20.

    I would advise a young man against “Catcher…” because of the distingue danger, and would advise better stories, such as DH Lawrence “Aarons Rod”, Fitzgeralds “Tender is The Night”, Ivan Doigs “This Boys Life”, even Stendahls “Red and Black”. Anything by Steinbeck, any short story or epilogue by Tolstoi, “Dream of The Red Chamber”, “Stone Monkey”, etc., “Lady Murakami”, “Sidhartha”.

    Every young boy should read Robert Louis Stevensons short real-life adventures “Travels with A Donkey” and “An Inland Voyage”. They should be on every schoolboys bookshelf so that he may understand Stevensons famous Defense Of Father Damien.

    I mention a “Young Man” because I believe that “Catcher..” is often prescribed as a good novel for a young man to read to assist him in his adventures and travails thru the mans life that awaits him, but I believe it’s too ‘down’ to provide much help. A man really has to be better and more widely prepared by his reading to survive and enjoy his life. There simply is no equal for reading about other peoples lives so that you may understand and enjoy your own experiences as they happen. A man needs to know about other men and women so that he may survive and recover from the numerous misfortunes and pitfalls that await him and offer his destruction. Every boy is like Odysseus who told his sailors to bind him to the mast and stuff their ears with wax, and ignore his wails for release no matter how piteous they sound, so that he alone might hear the irresistable song of the Sirens. No boy can resist the appeal of educational danger, nor can any man, since the poet tells us that the boy is father to the man.