'My Salinger Year': Margaret Qualley Encounters the Mysterious Phantom of American Literature

By Kurt Loder

March 5, 2021 5 min read

In 1995, an aspiring poet named Joanna Rakoff (a real person, played in "My Salinger Year" by Margaret Qualley) arrived in New York with her Eng. Lit. master's degree and set about trying to become a writer. First, though, she had to become a secretary, working for the director of an old-line Manhattan literary agency, a middle-aged woman named Margaret (Sigourney Weaver). The agency had a distinguished history, having numbered among its clients over the years F. Scott Fitzgerald, Langston Hughes, Agatha Christie — and the hyper-reclusive J.D. Salinger, who was still on board, or at least still called in.

This is a small, sweet Canadian movie, based on Rakoff's 2014 memoir, that might have melted into a puddle of pure niceness without Qualley's coltish charm. As it gets underway, Margaret makes clear to Joanna that her job, like that of the agency itself, is to protect Salinger from his fans — from their impertinent clamoring, their emotional entreaties, their fierce need to connect with an author who hasn't published a word of new prose in more than 30 years. The agency's technique for doing this — in light of the fact that Salinger himself hasn't answered a fan letter since 1963 — is to reply to all reader mail with bloodless form letters and then shred the fan inquiries — although not before someone has actually read them to flag any unbalanced correspondents. (Following the assassination of John Lennon in 1980, police responding to the scene found his killer, Mark David Chapman, on a sidewalk quietly reading Salinger's most famous novel, "The Catcher in the Rye.")

The movie is concerned with demonstrating Rakoff's rocking of this genteel publishing boat by beginning, against orders, to respond to fan letters with sympathetic replies of her own — an interesting subject (especially since Rakoff has actually never read a word of Salinger's work). By itself, though, this aspect of the story probably wouldn't take up a lot of screen time. So we also get a glimpse of Joanna's love life: There's a New York boyfriend named Don (Douglas Booth), who's an aspiring novelist, a budding socialist and an all-round pompous ass: ("Writing is writing," he announces. "Publishing is commerce.") There's also some personable byplay with Johanna's fellow agency workers (played by such pros as Brian F. O'Byrne and Colm Feore). In addition, there are occasional phone calls from the crusty Salinger himself, who's socked away in rural Cornish, New Hampshire, and intermittent fantasy scenes featuring some of his many melancholy correspondents.

Rather distractingly, the movie also wanders on to the subject of Salinger's last published work, a story called "Hapworth 16, 1924," which took up most of a 1965 issue of The New Yorker and was greeted with an unexpected salvo of fiery scorn by critics: The story of how the author attempted to resurrect this story and have it published as a stand-alone book might work well in print (I haven't read Rakoff's well-regarded memoir), but since the book never was published, it's not a very compelling narrative element.

The movie has a leafy warmth of a sort not often associated with New York City (it was shot in Montreal), and for Salinger fans, it may well be worth an evening's streaming. But it's burdened with an uncharacteristically listless performance by Weaver, who's unable to extract much humor from a Luddite character baffled by the encroaching technology of the digital age. And if it weren't for the big-eyed presence and lovably raspy delivery of Margaret Qualley, the picture would be unlikely to linger very long in anyone's mind.

 Photo credit IFC Films.
Photo credit IFC Films.

Kurt Loder is the film critic for Reason Online. To find out more about Kurt Loder and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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