The Virtues of Reticence: On James Salter’s ‘Don’t Save Anything’

Among the many attractive qualities of the late James Salter—his powers of evocation; his famously ungross writing about sex; his apprehension of and about mid-century masculinity—is that he didn’t overestimate his chosen profession. He wore it lightly, the way ace pilots he knew wore their heroic qualities lightly. That writing had been a choice for him, before it was anything else, was paramount. Salter chose to resign his commission from the Air Force in 1957, after a grueling education at West Point and 12 years of service that saw him fly over 100 combat missions during the Korean War. Leaving the military to become a novelist “was the most difficult act of my life,” he writes in the first of the essays collected in this new volume of nonfiction, Don’t Save Anything. Difficult not because writing was dangerous or glorious (“I had seen what I took to be real glory”), but because there was no way, with his background, to avoid imagining as marks of personal weakness the potential humiliation, financial risk, and egotism that writing invites. West Point trained him for the opposite of those things; naturally, he ended up avoiding all three in a career that yielded six novels, two books of short stories, plays, screenplays, a brilliant memoir, and the journalism gathered here. He wrote with a new lease on life, under the name James Salter rather than his birth name James Horowitz. “Call it a delusion if you like,” he writes, “but within me was an insistence that whatever we did, the things that were said, the dawns, the cities, the lives, all of it had to be drawn together, made into pages, or it was in danger of not existing, of never having been.” Having gotten a late start, Salter wasted no time and no words; from The Hunters (1956) to All That Is (2013), every sentence feels measured and without ornament, the emotions precisely located before their conveyance. Paragraphs resolve with a pronounced matter-of-factness, often along a chain of clipped, plainly wrought details marshalled by a style that’s always subtle, never self-amused, and capable of devastating poignancy. Salter practiced the indulgence of writing with a kind of operational humility, even on topics like war and sex that other male writers of his generation could crow about ad nauseam. “Don’t save anything” was his advice to other writers, his widow Kay Eldredge Salter explains in the preface to this book. Saving “phrases or names or incidents” for some better, future composition was a luxury unsuited to someone so familiar with mortal risk, or at least someone who really knew how to savor the moment. In his own moderate way, Salter did live a sort of bon vivant American literary life, whose familiar locales (New York, Paris, Rome, Aspen, Iowa City) provide the backdrops to some of these essays. He met glamour with curiosity and discernment—never taken in, exactly, but entering on his own terms. His friendship with the young Robert Redford, for example, is described in one of this collection’s fuller pieces, about his experiences in screenwriting. (In New York, “when I went into restaurants with Redford, eyes turned to watch as we crossed the room—the glory seemed to be yours as well.”) Ultimately, though, the movie business failed to move him: “Looking back, I suppose I have always rejected the idea of actors as heroes, and no intimacy with any of them has changed this,” he writes. “Actors are idols. Heroes are those with something at stake.” He might have said the same about writers. Glory belonged not to the individual but to the endeavor, like in the military. ”The thing that is marvelous is literature,” he says in another essay, “which is like the sea, and the exaltation of being near it, whether you are a powerful swimmer or wading by the shore.” Don’t Save Anything is an odds-and-ends collection of pieces mostly written for magazines, from The New Yorker and Esquire to Outside and European Travel and Life. A few of them cover topics and rehearse memories more richly developed in his superb collection of travel writing, There & Then (2005), and the memoir Burning the Days (1997), which may be his masterpiece. Still, with a biography of Salter yet to appear (his papers at the University of Texas lie in waiting), Don’t Save Anything does more than any publication since the memoir to show us who he was, to “reveal some of the breadth and depth of Jim’s endless interest in the world,” as Kay Eldredge Salter puts it. That’s all very welcome, and reading Salter on French restaurants or the history of Aspen is preferable to reading just about anyone else on those subjects, but it’s when Salter reveals more than merely his interests that the prose really flickers, as it does throughout Burning the Days. On catching a glimpse of Redford at a premier years after their friendship had waned, he writes: There was a virtual rain of light as flashbulbs went off everywhere, and, amid a small group moving down the aisle, the blond head of the star could be seen. I was far off —years, fact—but felt a certain sickening pull. There came to me the part about Falstaff and the coronation. I shall be sent for in private, I thought, consoling myself. I shall be sent for soon at night. He was, at last, when The Paris Review awarded him its lifetime-achievement Hadada Prize in 2011, with Redford as the presenter. (“This is my Stockholm,” Salter told the gala.) Predictably, these essays illustrate how at ease Salter felt in the world of derring-do—not bloodsports, but auto racing, skiing, and climbing. His fluency in the often unspoken codes of male camaraderie and competition was a transferrable skill, and he mined those pursuits for literary productions like the novel Solo Faces (1979) and the screenplay for Downhill Racer (1969), in which Redford starred and which Robert Ebert called “the best movie ever made about sports—without really being about sports at all.” Like Jon Krakauer after him, Salter could hang: profiling the legendary climber Royal Robbins, Salter clings to the crag right with him (“Almost from the first moment, certainly from the time you are eight or ten feet off the ground, there is the feeling of being in another element, as distinct as diving into the sea”). About authors Salter is courteous here, a powerful swimmer hailing others further out. For a very different editorial staff of People, he interviewed Graham Greene, Vladimir Nabokov, Antonia Fraser, and Han Suyin. For The Paris Review, which published many of his short stories, he wrote a gorgeously rendered but myopic essay-in-vignettes about the Italian poet and proto-fascist Gabriele d’Annunzio. (The logic here is that only so many writers have ever also been fighter pilots, and d’Annunzio is more interesting than Roald Dahl or Antoine de Saint-Exupéry; Salter’s essay, included in There & Then, about the favorite Tokyo hotel of Yukio Mishima, another reactionary whackjob, has little to say about Mishima.) In his tributes to people like Dwight D. Eisenhower, Isaac Babel, and the editor Ben Sonnenberg, Jr., his style brings to mind that of another consummate “writer’s writer,” the reporter Murray Kempton. Like Kempton, Salter could write about his subjects with a sense of history and deep continuity, casting them almost as actors from antiquity or myth. Salter’s fans may wish he had written more before his death in June 2015, but seen from another vantage his reticence can look like virtue: unlike many in the nursing home of “American letters,” Salter didn’t feel compelled to weigh in on every controversy under the sun. Whatever his private grumblings, he didn’t re-enlist to fight in the culture wars on behalf of Allan Bloom, the Ayatollah, or Patrick Bateman, at least not in these essays. At a time when Joyce Carol Oates brings a suicide vest to a gunfight each day on Twitter, Salter’s non-intervention comes as a relief more than anything. And since his fiction is so far from broad social portraiture, it’s no surprise that when Salter does veer into the realm of “commentary,” he sounds imprecise and ambivalent, firmly out of his lane. Only in the last essay of the book, a transcribed lecture from 1995, do we get all the predictable hand-wringing about the state of the canon, the universities, deconstructivism, euphemistic discourse, the souring influence of television, computers, and pop culture, etc.; he locks sights and rains death from above on one straw man after another. The worth of literary texts, he insists, “is not in their provenance or their good intentions, just as their achievement is not to be gauged by their conformity to the moment’s panethnic pansexual Panglossian social or political enthusiasms.” This kind of talk came very cheap in the '90s, of course, and represents a riskless engagement with literature. It makes Salter seem so much more common than some of us would like to think he was. But the mistake, Salter himself would surely agree, is to come expecting heroism in the first place. Elsewhere, a 1998 “Talk of the Town” piece about Bill Clinton’s perjury seems neither here nor there. The truest shame of the bunch is “Younger Women, Older Men,” a meandering essay full of literary and historical and autobiographical referents, about the attraction of older men to younger women and vice versa. Needless to say, it is among the last takes on that presently extremely charged topic that anyone will want to read at the end of the 2017. It’s not so lecherous or piggish (Salter’s own much younger wife, with whom he spent nearly 40 years before his death, was no doubt at the front of his mind through it all) as it is equivocal and even playful where neither of those things can do. On one page he praises a young heterosexual couple in words that could come from a Focus on the Family newsletter, and on the next he says something so definitive as: “The slightest understanding of things shows that men will take what they are not prevented from taking, and all the force of society must be set against this impulse.” Would that he concluded right there—shout it from the mountaintops—but no, it goes on. From the mouth of a character it would all be one thing, but this is cud you don’t want to see the author chew with his own mouth wide open. One really not worth saving—a sharper editor would have consigned it to the yellowing pages of the March 1992 Esquire. In his lifetime, Salter found admirers as various as Saul Bellow, Teju Cole, Richard Ford,  Roxane Gay, Jhumpa Lahiri, Michael Ondaatje, and Susan Sontag, who numbered him “among the very few North American writers all of whose work I want to read, whose as yet unpublished books I wait for impatiently.” While assembled with the respectful intention of not reprinting material published elsewhere, Don’t Save Anything proves that there remains an unpublished, more definitive book of Salter’s essays—one to really affirm his stature as a worker in the medium. In addition to much of what’s here, that book would cull from the travelogues of There & Then and the food writing of Life is Meals: A Food Lover’s Book of Days (2006), which he wrote together with Kay Eldredge Salter. It would also include what has to be his most fully realized essay: “You Must,” about West Point, originally printed in Esquire, anthologized in Best American Essays 1993, and later modified to become a chapter in Burning the Days (which explains its absence here). A worthy successor to George Orwell’s boarding school nightmare “Such, Such Were the Joys,” “You Must” displays all the gifts that Salter could bring to the table as a writer of nonfiction (“Seventeen, vain, and spoiled by poems, I prepared to enter a remote West Point,” he says by way of introduction). But until the collection appears that can take the whole measure of Salter’s interests—Library of America, are you listening?—we should count our lucky stars that this much more of his work is now so close at hand. It’s one more invitation to wade out into the sea where he plunged himself a full 60 years ago and to which he belongs now, a lifeguard on the horizon signaling that the water is just fine.