I received Salinger as a Christmas gift. Great! I love books about political figures, and Pierre Salinger was in the thick of a compelling period in history. Imagine my surprise when I discovered this was a biography of J.D. Salinger, an author I had slogged through as a teenager, and whom I recalled more for his fame than his literary works. Hmmm.
J.D. Salinger had a lot of excuses to be a crusty, irascible SOB. He was handsome and brilliant, and had a complicated childhood on Manhattan’s Upper East Side followed by truly harrowing experiences in World War II. He worked in counterintelligence after the war, a job which brought him to Dachau. An early affair haunted him throughout his life, and fed his fondness for a string of virginal young women who willingly catered to him. Simply put, he was an emotional mess.
He worked on “The Catcher in the Rye” and published numerous short stories throughout the war, returning to the US deeply scarred and on his way to phenomenal success as a writer. His books and short stories were lapped up by an insatiable audience who clamored for more and identified with his characters to a degree that maddened him. His last story was published in 1965, by which time he had largely disappeared into the New Hampshire countryside. For decades there were rumors, which he did nothing to quell, that he was hard at work on his next novel. He was glimpsed on occasion, frowning and growling, but remained stubbornly quiet both on and off the page. His wives, a few friends and neighbors, and his publisher supported his insistence upon privacy. When he died in 2010 he left behind untold pages of writing that has yet to see the light of day.
Shields and Salerno interviewed hundreds of people who knew Salinger throughout his life. They combed through letters, journals, and manuscripts, and created a biography that almost reads like a script, which gives it a compelling immediacy. But Salinger remains stubbornly distant – a fascinating presence that remains just out of reach. I wanted more – not of his writing, but of him. I wanted to enter his world. Which is why I was delighted to come upon …
My Salinger Year: In the late ‘90s, Joanna Rakoff was fresh out of college when she landed a job as the assistant to Salinger’s literary agent, an eccentric and irascible woman heading up an equally eccentric agency. Rakoff’s on-the-job training was largely a lecture on the need to protect “Jerry” from the outside world, while the agency undertook the task of trying to publish one last Salinger book. She had never read anything he wrote, though six months into her stint she binge-reads everything and falls for him like everyone else did.
This memoir was like my backstage pass to a small part of Salinger’s world. On the heels of the biography, I now saw what it was like to be on the other side of the world Salinger carefully constructed for himself. Rakoff incorporates her private life alongside her work experience in an agency being dragged unwillingly into the modern day. She has a strange boyfriend, massive debt, and an uncertain future as a poet. The book has been criticized for being so personal, but I thought that was its strength. Rakoff was a Salinger insider as well as a reader and fan. (I’m also guessing she would have been sexual catnip to him in his younger years.) All of Salinger’s weirdness – and its fallout – is on display in a real world setting.
I know it’s a lot to suggest you read an 800 page biography of a not-nice person and follow it up with a memoir featuring the same grumpy guy. But you should consider it if you’re a reader who enjoys delving into another world filled with interesting characters and staying there for a while.