A dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive on the se­cret Salinger

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Mireille Juchau

SLIGHT Re­bel­lion off Madi­son, the short story that would be­come JD Salinger’s iconic novel Catcher in the Rye, was pub­lished in 1941. This first in­car­na­tion of Holden Caulfield ap­peared in The New Yorker flanked by ads for the joints the dis­il­lu­sioned young man might fre­quent. The Dorset, off Fifth Av­enue, fea­tur­ing Fred Wit­mer “and his piano suavi­ties”; the “leisurely seren­ity” of the Barclay Din­ing Room.

In the story, Holden, home from prep school, gets drunk af­ter dancing with his girl Sally at the Wedg­wood Room. Holden’s style, Salinger tells us, “was long, slow side steps back and forth, as though he were dancing over an open man­hole”. This is an au­gury, and Holden will soon lay bare his dis­af­fec­tion, beg­ging Sally to run away to Ver­mont or Mas­sachusetts: “I’m in bad shape. I’m in lousy shape. Look, Sally. How would you like to just beat it?”

Much has been made of the link be­tween Holden’s ha­tred of New York life, of “phonies”, and his cre­ator’s dis­taste for the pub­lic­ity that fol­lowed the suc­cess of Catcher in the Rye. In 1953 Salinger fled that city where he was born for an in­creas­ingly reclu­sive life in New Hamp­shire. His fi­nal work, a long story, Hap­worth 16, 1924, was pub­lished in 1965 and widely panned.

Salinger’s re­solve never to pub­lish again ap­peared to be wan­ing in 1996 when the small Or- My Salinger Year By Joanna Rakoff Blooms­bury, 272pp, $27.99 chises Press pro­posed to pub­lish Hap­worth as a novella. Salinger’s del­i­cate, pre­car­i­ous ne­go­ti­a­tions over this ill-fated deal — a side-step­ping dance not un­like Holden’s — are de­scribed in Joanna Rakoff’s mem­oir My Salinger Year.

Rakoff, a col­lege grad­u­ate in “neat skirt and sweater, redo­lent of Sylvia Plath”, briefly worked as an as­sis­tant to Salinger’s agent, Phyl­lis West­berg, at New York’s ven­er­a­ble Harold Ober As­so­ciates. “Jerry”, as Salinger was known in their hushed, lam­plit of­fices, is one of a stel­lar client list that in­cludes Dy­lan Thomas, F. Scott Fitzger­ald and Wil­liam Faulkner.

Rakoff’s mem­oir vi­brantly de­tails the old­e­world agency with its Rolodexes “of enor­mous mag­ni­tude” and pedal-pow­ered Dic­ta­phones, a place with­out com­put­ers or pho­to­copiers, where letters were car­bon copied in “a paper sand­wich” on “pulpy yel­low paper”. Rakoff is tasked to type form letters to Salinger’s fans and fob off his end­less flow of in­vi­ta­tions. It was Salinger’s wish that no cor­re­spon­dence or calls be for­warded to him.

West­berg, a cross be­tween “Don Cor­leone and Lauren Ba­call”, ar­rives at work “swathed in a whiskey mink, her eyes cov­ered with enor­mous dark glasses”. She in­structs Rakoff never to call Salinger and warns, “He doesn’t want to read your sto­ries. Or hear how much you loved The Catcher in the Rye.” When Rakoff claims she has no sto­ries, West­berg is pleased. “Writ­ers,” she says, “al­ways make the worst as­sis­tants.”

Per­haps be­cause this woman, with her “low pa­tri­cian voice”, is so enig­matic, Rakoff cat­a­logues her ev­ery man­ner­ism. At times this

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