Following the death of J.D. Salinger in 2010 has come a flood of books, articles, and even a documentary film attempting to explain or exploit this famously reclusive writer’s legacy. Thomas Beller’s “J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist’’ and Joanna Rakoff’s “My Salinger Year’’ are the latest additions.
On the face of things, it’s hard to imagine two more different books and people. Beller’s work is a short but deeply researched, dark, intense biography in the Amazon Icons series. Rakoff’s is a charming memoir of her year working as an assistant to Salinger’s literary agent.
The founder of the literary magazine Open City and author of “How to Be a Man: Scenes from a Protracted Boyhood,” Beller has been Salinger-mad since adolescence and over-identifies with Holden. The then-23-year-old Rakoff scorned Salinger as “insufferably cute, aggressively quirky, precious . . . juvenile and too clever-clever.”
Beller’s book ranges over nearly a century of history and describes the process of its own composition in a breathless present tense; Rakoff’s book is a time-capsule portrait. Where Rakoff is naive and even a bit prim in her own recounting, Beller presents himself as an urbane, rebellious bad boy. While for Rakoff, New York is a glamorous, forbidding place that both entices and daunts, for Beller it’s the familiar terrain of childhood. Rakoff’s tone is tremulous and gentle, Beller’s fierce and passionate.
What these books have in common, however, is a searching spirit and a desire both to illuminate and to protect Salinger.
It’s the mid-1990s, and Joanna Rakoff has dropped out of a graduate program in literature because she wants to write her own poetry rather than “analyze other people’s poetry.” She has lofty aspirations, but she knows “nothing about publishing, nothing about literary agencies, nothing about this specific literary agency” where’s she’s just accepted a job. Although she fancies herself “the Bright Young Assistant, The Girl Friday,” her father points out that she’s really just a glorified secretary.
As Rakoff contends with the challenges of her new position (she must use a Dictaphone and a typewriter; computers aren’t allowed) and her enigmatic, glamorous, yet supremely out-of-touch boss, she learns that The Agency’s big client is none other than Salinger. She’s sternly warned that she must never give out his contact information, never call him, and always answer his mountains of fan mail with a standard form letter.
The compassionate young assistant, however, wants to “bring the form letter into the modern era” and adds some personal notes to the standard letter. Rakoff does a marvelous job of capturing a cultural moment — the publishing industry on the cusp of the Internet era — and describing the ambition and anxiety of a young, bright, creative person living beyond her means in an expensive and relentlessly competitive city.
When Rakoff finally reads Salinger, she’s bowled over; Salinger is “nothing like [she’d] thought” he’d be, and his Franny particularly speaks to her. During her Salinger year, Rakoff gains experience, but she also becomes Franny-like and innocent in more essential, Salingerian ways: She begins to “somehow find a way to . . . be her authentic self, . . . [t]o not be the person the world is telling her to be . . . who must compromise herself in order to live.”
Beller, too, is in search of the authentic. Casting himself as a “literary sleuth,” he collects bits of “contraband Salinger,” interviews reams of people, and visits virtually every place in the United States important to Salinger. He relies heavily on the unpublished first edition of Ian Hamilton’s “J.D. Salinger: A Writing Life’’ and its copious quotations from Salinger’s correspondence and acknowledges that the “aura of trespass is strong around Salinger.”
Part of Beller’s story is his own style. He flits in and out of present-tense recountings of his pilgrimages as biographer and straightforward past-tense reportings of Salinger’s childhood, schooling, wartime experiences, odd first marriage to a Nazi, relationships with editors and publishers. It’s memoir as much as biography, and it’s also a paean to the golden days of magazines and New York City. It’s studded with original aperçus about the art of biography, the nature of literary influence, and the importance of place to a writer’s sensibility.
Transitions and connections are the flaws in both books. The propulsive energy of Beller’s quest is undermined to some extent by his excessive reliance on lengthy footnotes, whose material could just as easily have appeared in the text proper or have been relegated to endnotes. Despite her book’s title, Rakoff’s story is only tenuously linked to Salinger and his work, and when she tells us that on a date with her boyfriend, “something strange happened, something that seemed, in a way, to have been lifted out of a Salinger story,” the strain of correspondence is palpable.
Both authors declare their allegiance to Salinger (Rakoff emphasizes that she found him a “kind and patient” presence on both the phone and in person), but they don’t heap aspersions on his detractors (Beller reads Joyce Maynard, for example, with remarkable compassion and insight), and they don’t sentimentalize his work. What is most admirable about both Rakoff and Beller is their critical intelligence and generosity of spirit. Holden Caulfield wishes he could chat with the people who wrote the books he liked; that collegiality is a feeling that “The Escape Artist” and “My Salinger Year” generate.
MY SALINGER YEAR
By Joanna Rakoff
Knopf, 252 pp., $25.95
J.D. SALINGER: The Escape Artist
By Thomas Beller
New Harvest, 192 pp. $20
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’