What young man did not read “The Catcher in the Rye,” the 1951 novel that gave us Holden Caulfield, an icon of teenage rebellion? We all identified with Holden’s sense of angst and alienation.
Modern Library named it one of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century.
The author was J.D. Salinger, a sometimes contributor to The New Yorker who became disillusioned with how his work was handled by publishers and after a few books became something of a recluse, holing up at his ranch-style house in the wooded seclusion of Cornish, New Hampshire.
As The New York Times once reported, “Mr. Salinger is almost equally famous for having elevated privacy to an art form.”
When I was consulting with The Saturday Evening Post, then-editor Stephen George told me of a delivery job he’d had during college. One day he got a package for Jerome David Salinger, but instead of leaving it at the mailbox as instructed, he carried up to the door in order to meet his literary hero. He said he interrupted Salinger’s writing.
Even though J.D. Salinger had mostly quit publishing, he continued writing all his life. He told The New York Times, “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing … I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”
In addition to his aversion to media attention, he stewed over a failed relationship with Oona O’Neill, daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill (she dumped him to marry Charlie Chaplin).
Despite this, Salinger went on to marry several times, producing a couple of children. And at 53, he had an affair with 18-year-old Joyce Maynard.
There’s a new film called “My Salinger Year,” directed by Philippe Falardeau. It is based on a 2014 memoir by Joanna Rakoff.
You can find it on such streaming video platforms as Apple+, Amazon Prime, and Vudu – as well as screening at selected theaters such as Tropic Cinema.
Rakoff was freelance journalist, poet, critic, and eventual novelist. At 23, she took a job with Harold Ober Associates, the literary agency that handled J.D. Salinger. Mostly she handled the large volume of fan mail that Salinger received, replying to followers that the author never read his mail. Her encounters with Salinger himself would later be recounted in her 2014 memoir.
In the film, Joanna is played by Margaret Qualley (“Fosse/Verdon,” “Once Upon a Time in the West”). Her boss at the agency is none other than Sigourney Weaver (“Avatar,” “Alien,” “Working Girl”). Tim Post (“X-Men: Days of Future Past,” TV’s “Real Detective”) makes a brief appearance as the elusive Salinger.
Despite the salacious lure of the film’s title (same with the memoir) this is more the story of a young woman breaking into New York’s literary scene in the mid-‘90s, and less about the more interesting life and loves and litigations of J.D. Salinger.
Here he’s known by the insider nomenclature of “Jerry.” But we don’t really get to know him.
The story of Salinger’s tender and turbulent relationship with Joyce Maynard might have made a more interesting movie. He plucked Maynard out of Yale, lived with her less than a year, criticized her career choices that he said had made her a “worldly, greedy, hungry person,” then dumped her while vacationing at Daytona Beach with his children.
At least we would have got to see more of the real Salinger.
But if you will take this film as interesting “background material” about a career in publishing, you’ll feel you got you buck’s worth. You’ll experience Joanna’s “silent panic of being stuck doing a job that was supposed to be just temporary.” You’ll root for her to leave the agency (not named in the film), even at the price of jettisoning her bookish boyfriend along the way.
But given a choice, I’d take “The Devil Wears Prada” over “My Salinger Year” as an entertaining insight into the New York publishing world. Yes, I was there at the time.
Nonetheless, J.D. Salinger holds a noteworthy place in the world of literature. And a place in the society he eschewed. Keep in mind, Mark David Chapman cited Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” as the inspiration for his murder of John Lennon. But this movie’s not about that either.
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