My adventures answering J.D. Salinger's mail.

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Feb. 3 2010 10:39 AM

Dear Jerry, You Old Bastard

My adventures answering J.D. Salinger's mail.

Also in Slate: Ron Rosenbaum on Salinger, sex, and the road not taken; Troy Patterson on the two Salingers; Stephen Metcalf on Salinger's genius; Nathan Heller on Nine Stories; Chris Wilson on " Seymour: An Introduction"; Jody Rosen on Salinger's New York; Dana Stevens on Hollywood Holdens; Donald Fagen on his love for Franny Glass.

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On Friday afternoons, when the agency gathered for scotch in the foyer, talk would eternally turn to stories about Jerry, most of which were less about Jerry himself and more about those who had violated his privacy: the assistant who'd been fired because he gave out Jerry's phone number. The writer—Slate's Ron Rosenbaum, then on assignment for Esquire—who had shown up at Jerry's home in New Hampshire. Shyly, I chimed in with news of the middle-school administrator who'd called asking whether Salinger might be interested in speaking at his institution's commencement and was absolutely shocked when I explained that no, Mr. Salinger did not accept speaking engagements. My co-workers laughed uproariously, which instilled in me a mix of pleasure and guilt. I realized I had become one of them, a keeper of the Salinger flame.

What was missing from this equation was, of course, Salinger himself. Normally, I was told, he phoned to check in once in a while, sometimes sending the whole office into a tizzy with a bizarre request, for copies of his royalty statements from 1986 or press clippings from 1974 or some such thing. During my first months on the job, however, he remained a comfortably abstract concept. Then, in June, he called, anxious to speak to Phyllis. My stomach lurched a little when I realized that it was Salinger, for real, on the other end of the phone, speaking rather too loudly and seeming a bit confused by my voice, though I tried to speak brightly and enunciate. He was, alas, somewhat deaf and refused to use the amplified phone his wife, a nurse, had installed for him.

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It turned out something momentous was afoot in Salingerland: Eight years earlier, a small publisher in Alexandria, Va., had written to him, asking whether they might put out a book consisting solely of Salinger's novella "Hapworth 16, 1929," which had appeared in The New Yorker in 1965. To the shock of Phyllis—and everyone else at Ober—Salinger had, after years of thought, decided that this "fellow in Virginia" could publish "Hapworth." Suddenly, he was calling all the time, anxious about the details of this new deal, which seemed like it might mark a tentative re-entry into the world he'd abandoned 30 years earlier. Ober, just as suddenly, seemed charged with a frenetic energy. Phyllis bustled around the office and had long, loud conversations with Salinger, going over the details of the new book, from the cloth of the binding to the font to the paper stock. She asked him about the publisher, a retired professor, whom Salinger seemed to like very much, to Phyllis' surprise. It was not often, I supposed, that Salinger took a shine to someone new. In a way, I realized, the Virginia publisher was simply one of the fans whose letters I fielded, one who had managed to break through the wall of Ober's protectorate and prove to Salinger that, yes, they really were kindred spirits.

One day, as I transcribed a round of letters for Phyllis, a tall man with dark eyes and thinning gray hair arrived in the little antechamber in which I sat. He glanced in my direction, seemed confused, then gave me a small yet warm smile. Before I could ask if he needed help, Phyllis came running out of her office, shouting, "Jerry! There you are!" A moment later, I was standing in front of my desk, just below the wall of Salinger's books, shaking his large, dry hand. "Hello," he said. "Nice to meet you. We've spoken on the phone many times."

"We have," I said, smiling stupidly.

"OK, we have a lot to talk about," Phyllis said, guiding Salinger into her office. "This is a big year."

The Hapworth book never materialized. The publisher gave an interview to a local magazine, and Salinger decided his new friend was a phony after all. But before things went bad, around the time of Salinger's visit, I realized that I wanted to see what kind of writing could inspire such frenzied devotion. One night, I grabbed copies of his books off the shelf opposite my desk and devoured them in a weekend. These were not, as I'd thought, precious, nostalgic trifles of old New York, but strange, difficult, and, in many ways, deeply weird pieces of fiction. Salinger's narrative voice, 30, 40 years later, felt as fresh and shocking as any of the contemporary writers I was reading at the time—Mary Gaitskill, Martin Amis, Jonathan Franzen—or more so, even. He broke every rule and, with some exceptions, got away with it.

Six months later, I left Ober, unsure exactly of what I would do next but certain I couldn't spend another minute behind that old Selectric, secretly consoling the readers of a writer who didn't care to receive their letters. Over the ensuing years, as I became a writer myself, I returned regularly to Franny and Seymour and Buddy and Zooey—and even, on occasion, Holden—often at those moments when I felt unsure of what turn to take in a story. People often talk about outgrowing Salinger, about returning to Catcher as an adult and finding it silly, histrionic, annoying. But the stories have grown with me, as the best fictions do. I still have some of those letters—the letters I couldn't bear to throw in the trash—and I look at them from time to time, too, if I'm feeling strong enough. They still break my heart, those old bastards, almost as much as the work that inspired them.

Joanna Smith Rakoff is the author of the novel A Fortunate Age.