Holden Caulfield’s summer reading assignment: “My Salinger Year”

Going electric.
Going electric.
Image: AP Photo/Amy Sancetta
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In case you haven’t heard about it, this girl Joanna wrote a memoir about her year working at Salinger’s literary agency, which I wasn’t sure I’d be too hot about. For one, Jerry’s never been too cognizant of my privacy. Which is understandable, I guess, since that’s how writers are and all, but it still makes me crazy to be on display like that. And if the leading man is none too cautious, then I figured there was no way this Joanna girl was going to be better. I mean, that’s two degrees of separation right there.

You could tell that she’s the kind of girl I’ll end up with, once things settle down and all. I was half in love with her after the first couple pages. I mean, she’s stuck in some secretary gig at a New York agency because she wants to be a writer. It’s a pretty depressing place. Intelligent women double-checking appointments and answering phones. But she puts up with it all because she doesn’t want to marry some Harvard boy and live in a Harvard house and have Harvard babies. I can get on board with that, I really can.

All day we sat, our legs crossed at the knee, on our swivel chairs, answering the call of our bosses, ushering in writers with the correct mixture of enthusiasm and remove, never belying the fact that we got into this business not because we wanted to fetch glasses of water for visiting writers but because we wanted to be writers ourselves, and this seemed the most socially acceptable way to go about doing so, though it was already becoming clear that this was not at all the way to go about doing so (1).

Something about old Joanna fetching glasses of water with that phony smile makes me nauseous. She’s quite funny and interesting, though. It’s always frustrating when you meet people sacrificing themselves for writing who don’t write too well to begin with, but that’s the thing about Joanna: you can tell she’s talented right away. It’s more like she’s writing a poem than a memoir.

For a moment, I did, truly, lose a breath as the patterns—leaves and vines and diamonds—revealed themselves to me, and as I understood the ceiling’s true height, the magnitude of air and space between those gold vines and my small self. My shoe, with its narrow heel, caught on the thick carpet, and for a moment I thought— I knew, my heart beating faster— that I was going to trip and fall down that flight of stairs, the world around me rotating … (139)

Joanna’s always doing pretty things, like catching her heel on the carpet. Girls can turn anything into a fairy tale, even sitting on Subways and transcribing interviews and drinking coffee. Joanna talks about New York like it’s delicate, straight out of a Henry James novel or something. She’s descriptive as Hell, that Joanna. It gets on my nerves sometimes. She talks about every single outfit she wears in in detail. I don’t care much about her pink chiffon sundress or cashmere sweater. But on the other side of it, she’s pretty good at describing her friends and bosses. You can tell they’re real people, the way she talks about them.

It’s funny, she goes on and on about outfits, but then she uncovers that her boyfriend’s cheating on her, and then she just goes to work, and that’s all. No fight. No breakup. There was a lot like that, lots of small stories that just disappear or don’t come back until after you’ve forgotten about them. That’s realistic, I guess, but it made me anxious as hell. Like knowing there’s a wolf watching you through the bushes, but not knowing when it’ll get hungry.

One other thing drove me crazy. On the back of the book, someone says something about Joanna being the literary Lena Dunham. It’s high praise, I suppose, but it made me sad. I pictured Joanna, Lena Dunham, Tina Fey, and Carol Burnett all filed away in a cabinet somewhere.

It’s a terrific memoir, mostly. Usually, when you read a book, you’re lucky if you hit one moment that makes you want to call up the author. But with My Salinger Year, they’re coming in the goddam walls. You could rip out any couple pages and find one. You really could.