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.
At the book party for All That Is, the new novel by James Salter, Paris Review editor Lorin Stein held forth on Salter as a “colossus” for many young writers and declared the book his favorite of Salter’s work. It was significant that Stein, who is barely 40, introduced Salter: the party was populated by equal parts Silent Generation and Baby Boomers, and Stein — along with a few journalists and a smattering of publicity and editorial assistants — was among the youngest in attendance. Whether Jim Salter himself requested the introduction I don’t know; but at 87, a friend of his told me, he is finally embracing the possibility that his work will influence generations to come, whereas a few years ago he was pessimistic. Stein also told a story about Salter running late to the party at which he would be honored with the TPR’s Hadada Award, because of a flat tire: while Stein wrung his hands, anticipating a ruined evening, a colleague reminded him, “It’s Jim Salter; I think he knows how to change a tire.” (And of course, he did.) Hearty laughter followed Stein’s punchline, as the room was filled with friends and admirers who know Salter as exemplar of a dying breed, the model of a certain kind of manhood — air force pilot, rock climber, linen-suited world traveler, reticent charmer, master of the martini.
I am one young writer who has been influenced by Salter’s work, but I do find that there is a cultishness to Salter fandom: either your eyes go wide and your heart goes pitter-patter, or you don’t really get the hype. A Sport and a Pastime is the book that the uninitiated are encouraged to read in order to encounter the full potency of Salterism, and it’s not a book about which one can feel lukewarm. The provocative sex scenes between Phillip Dean and Anne-Marie are too straightforward and anatomical to be read as arty erotica, too emotionally serious and lyrical to be dismissed (or enjoyed) as cheap pornography. That the nameless narrator claims repeatedly throughout the novel, “I am not telling the truth about Dean, I am inventing him out of my own inadequacies” has the effect of making Dean and Anne-Marie’s every word and act feel even more sensually alive, enlarged, insistent:
In solitude one must penetrate, one must endure. The icy beginning is where it is the worst. One must pass all that. One must go forward all the way, through bitterness, through righteous feelings, advancing upon it like a holy city, sensing the true joy.
When reading a Salter story or novel, you’re either all in, or else a battle will ensue in which you resist the text’s inherent demand for surrender — of your analytical cleverness and ironic distance, your progressive social politics, your graduate-school-honed fidelity to the underwhelming epiphany.
A feast of love is beginning…They have founded their domain. A satanic happiness follows.
This is not George Saunders or Lorrie Moore making fun of the ineffectualness of romantic impulses; this is for real.
Feasts, domains, and a happiness so-good-that-it’s-bad are the stuff of greatness, of heroes. In his recent profile for The New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten wrote that Salter’s having “fixated on heroism” has contributed to “grounds for a slender reputation.” This supposed “fixation,” which I would characterize in more positive terms — an interest, a belief, a vision — is at the heart of what draws me to Salter’s work, and perhaps, yes, herein is where the road divides: if fumbling, self-undermining antiheroes are your thing, Salter may not be. “I believe there’s a right way to live and to die. The people who can do that are interesting to me,” he said in a 1993 interview. The nameless narrator of Sport, Vernon Rand of Solo Faces, Viri Berland of Light Years, and the many solitary, teeming souls of his short stories may not be heroes or heroines per se, but they are deeply in pursuit of a “right way” — which is a life of greatness and goodness, feeling and fortitude, lust and love. In Salter’s universe, pleasure-seeking is a kind of courage; sexual ecstasy aligned with holiness. A man’s search for pride, honor, triumph, are not separate from, nor opposed to, the sensual, the bodily; rather, these are — must be — of a piece, in a life fully lived. From Solo Faces:
[Rand’s] image cleansed the air like rain. He was the envoy of a breed one had forgotten, generous, unafraid, with a saintly smile and the vascular system of a marathon runner.
And later, we get this narrative declaration, typical of Salter’s omniscient authorial voice: “The act of love…is still the most serious act of all.”
Age comes up frequently in reference to All That Is. Presumably it is Salter’s final major work, which is both a delicate and unavoidable subtext to any consideration of it.
The novel’s epigraph — “There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real” — is a quote by… James Salter. To my mind, it announces to the reader that the author has reached that stage of life that warrants staking out his own ideas and insights, deference and deflection be damned. When you’ve lived as long and fully as Jim Salter has, it is perhaps as good a time as any to be forthrightly self-referential. Of course the quotation is printed without attribution — four lines in a sea of white space. So too, the protagonist Phillip Bowman is an unexplicit incarnation of Salter — a young man returning from war and going on to find his way in life, letters, and love.
The “factual” alignments are both skeletal and notable: both men born in 1925, in Manhattan, raised as the only child of a doting mother in New Jersey; both serving in the military and recognizing the experience as the most important of their lives, “the pride he would never lose.” Bowman’s early marriage is to a girl named Vivian Amussen from a Virginia horse-country family, like Salter’s first wife Ann; the fictional marriage ends as the real-life one did, in divorce. Vivian thinks of herself as daring, “taking the train up to see a man she had met in a bar, whose background she did not know but who seemed to have depth and originality.” It does not feel like an effort to hear a youthful Salter thinking of himself in this way, through Vivian’s, or Ann’s, eyes. Of course there are divergences: Bowman is an editor, not a writer. He fought in Okinawa in the Navy, Salter in Korea as an Air Force pilot. Bowman goes to Harvard, Salter graduated West Point. Bowman and Vivian divorce before there are any children, Jim and Ann Salter had four children, one of whom died tragically as a young adult.
Still, “facts” aside, All That Is strikes me as the most autobiographical of Salter’s work to date, which is to say the author is more present in these pages than he’s ever been. His final novel reads like his own particular bird’s-eye of the reality he believes in, cherishes, proffers to readers as worthy of transcription from “dream” to immortality — the criteria for which may be rather straightforward: “All you have in life is what you remember,” he said once, his paraphrase of the Renoir quote he used as the epigraph for Light Years. I read All That Is as a kind of impressionistic record of Salter’s memory — the people, places, emotions, perceptions, and anecdotes that have stuck, and have thus mattered. Bowman’s story, for example, begins at age 20, returns in flashback to memories of childhood (his mother primarily), and ends as he approaches 60; these, presumably, are the years in a man’s life that most matter. “What has your life been like?” asks “an older woman with a marvelous face like a prune” whom Bowman meets at a dinner in England. “What are the things that have mattered?” He is 45 years old and goes on to say something about the war, but
He was not sure he had told the truth. His mind had just drifted back to it [the war] involuntarily. And among his dreams it had been the one that most consistently recurred.
The author, the narrator, and the character are all present in this scene: Bowman thinks maybe being a naval officer has so far mattered most; the narrator reveals to us that this is a provisional notion; and the author, it seems to me, suggests that the woman’s “marvelous face,” along with her line and manner of questioning, contend for the truly immortal element. At 45, there were dreams, and uncertainty; but at 87, dear reader, here is reality, and a record of what has mattered. Fiction (character) and memory (author) dance together elegantly here, with a signature strangeness. The minor character feels as important, surely as memorable, as the major one.
All That Is is filled with moments and episodes like these, where a minor player’s story comes forth in full color, detail, and mystery, only to never reappear again.
[One] of his writers had been to school only through the seventh grade though he didn’t explain why. His mother had given him a library card and told him, go and read the books.
“The books. That’s what she said. She’d wanted to be a teacher but she had these children. She was a disappointed woman. She said, you come from decent, hardworking people. Serious people.”
Serious was the word that had haunted his life…
His name was Keith Crowley. He was a slight man who looked to the side when he talked. Bowman liked him and liked his writing, but his novel didn’t sell, two or three thousand copies was all. He wrote two more, one of which Bowman published, and then dropped from sight.
There are other writers that Salter wants us to remember — individuals and types at once, like the aging William Swangren, who told stories about Greta Garbo, Somerset Maugham, Thornton Wilder, and “talked about…homosexuality in the ancient world, the intercrural pleasures of the Greeks and his own experiences with gonorrhea. It took eighteenth months to cure with a French doctor putting a tube up him every day and painting the lesions with Argyrol.” Bowman was supposed to reject Swangren’s book, but he “liked him so much that he changed his mind about [it]. They took it. Unfortunately, it sold few copies.” There are also publisher types, like Berggren the Swede, who “had been made for women,” married three times, and who sweeps on and off stage in two pages:
With Karen, Berggren did not feel young again but something better. Sex was more than a pleasure, at this age he felt joined to the myths. He had accidentally seen, a few years earlier, a wonderful thing, his mother dressing — his back was to him, she was seventy-two at the time, her buttocks were smooth and perfect, her waist firm. It was in his genes, then, he could perhaps go on and on, but one day he saw something else, perfectly innocent, Karen and a girlfriend she had known since school lying on the grass in their skimpy bathing suits tanning themselves, face down, side by side, talking to one another and occasionally the leg of one of them kicked idly up into the sun that was soothing their bare backs….He did not try to imagine what they were talking about, it was only their idle happiness in doing it while his own habits were less joyful and animated…On that day and other days he accepted the reality of what happened with women he loved, wives, principally, which was one of the things that led, despite his position and intelligence and the high regard in which he was held, to his suicide at the age of fifty-three, in the year that he and Karen parted.
And so in All That Is, there is a compelling and beautiful dance between the foregrounding and backgrounding of characters, lives, narratives. Whereas in the conventional novel, one would neaten up the relative positionings, guide the reader toward narrative priorities, in All That Is Salter reminds us that the “things” of his epigraph are deliberately unspecified; which is notable for a writer known for precision. What happens and what is remembered are distinct narrative lines; the overlap is frequent, yes, but unpredictable; where, how, and why they diverge is deeply interesting. Bowman’s story is told chronologically, and yet each chapter reads like a Rorschach that won’t hold still: here is what happened, here is what is — what will be — remembered. Which of it matters? Yes. Exactly.
But there is a clear throughline for Bowman’s journey, which is a journey from female to female, in search of the ideal in both sex and love. Bowman is a late-bloomer in both these areas, and he comes to them naïve, hopeful: he wants to believe in their purity, their absolute meaning, and is incredulous when he discovers otherwise: “It was not possible that she did not feel as he did,” he thinks, after the first time Vivian expresses disinterest in sex. And yet his faith revives, time and again — he aspires to the pure and the virginal with each encounter — even as it evolves out of innocence into something darker. With Enid, a married Englishwoman, “He felt like a god; they were only beginning,” and
He saw himself now to be another kind of man, the kind he had hoped, fully a man, used to the wonder. Enid smoked cigarettes, she did it only now and again, and breathed out the rich fragrance slowly. The light in the Ritz made her beautiful. The sounds of her high heels. There is no other, there will never be another.
Similarly, his affair with Christine — who later betrays him brutally — is
a brilliant dream…With Christine it would be unimaginably rich, living in the sunlight, on the water, on terraces hidden by vines, in the bare rooms of hotels…He wanted the Greek words for morning, night, thank you, love. He wanted some dirty Greek words so he could whisper them.
In a recent review of All That Is, John Freeman wrote that the book is “riddled with the sentiments about women of a past time,” and that “In bed, Bowman is always in charge.” I find this sort of reaction to Salter — indictments of his supposed social regressiveness — endlessly interesting, because it causes me to interrogate my alternate reaction. Freeman’s observations, strictly speaking, are not inaccurate: but there is the shadow of mistrust in his reading — of Salter the author, for failing to shake an antiquated worldview, which is something I too have certainly felt reading other white male authors. But with All That Is, I found that my own implicit trust in Salter’s vision of both eroticism and romanticism — which has been there since I first read Sport several years ago — began to make sense.
Bowman, an only child raised by his mother, comes to both sex and romance relatively late, and with a singular, strong influence on his budding manhood, which is the war and the qualities of courage and honor he internalized. Like all of Salter’s protagonists, Bowman is both flawed and fundamentally honorable — solitary, resistant to corruption, quietly ambitious, and deeply convinced that the erotic and the Platonic are one in the same; that The act of love is the most serious act of all. There is something distinct about a man discovering his dignity, his pride and valor, prior to his first sexual experience. Freeman compares Bowman to Don Draper, and I too have made similar comparisons between Salter’s world and Matthew Weiner’s. But Don’s psychology as a womanizer is portrayed (in the current season, in fact) as a prurient neurosis, traced back to his having been raised in a brothel by a stepmother who despised him. I once asked Salter about Mad Men, and he hadn’t at the time ever seen the show. And in a previous email, he’d written, “I admire the cardinal virtues, prudence, fortitude, justice, and mercy,” in relation to a question I asked about the relationship between an artist and his work. Admiring and enacting are different things, of course; both Salter and Bowman I believe recognize this. (As for Don Draper, I’m not so sure.)
What goes wrong for Bowman is that he loses the tether to his original influences: the war is long over, his mother has passed, and his friend Eddins, whose interspersed chapters portray the ideal (loving, passionate) mateship that Bowman seeks, has lost that ideal to a tragic accident. Bowman then begins to confound sexual prowess with actual prowess. If All That Is is Bowman’s late-blooming coming-of-age story, then this phase, his late 40s, is his adolescent stage, unseemly and shameless. He commits an ugly act of vengeance, sexual in nature, following Christine’s betrayal, and while the novel does not exactly “punish” him for it, he goes forth into later manhood shaken, self-conscious, and, in the last pages, humbled with gratitude:
He wanted nothing more. Her presence was miraculous…He was unsure of himself and of her. He was too old to marry. He didn’t want some late, sentimental compromise. He had known too much for that. He’d been married once, wholeheartedly, and been mistaken…
By novel’s end, he — Salter, Bowman — has not lost his faith in the seriousness of love, nor the glory of the erotic; but he no longer approaches them with such notions as “attainment,” “possession,” or “supremacy.”
While much has been said about Salter’s sentences — their elegant concision, “expensive” diction, the deftness of surprising pivots, syntax that is both fragmented and polished — Salter himself reportedly wrote to a friend that, with All That Is, he wanted to “get past the great writer-of-sentences thing,” and presumably the “writers’ writer” thing. Has he done it? The book party was held at the home of Salter’s friends Yves-André Istel and Kathleen Begala, at a tony address on Central Park West, notably similar to the location of Phillip Bowman’s first encounter with the narrow gates of social-class access (which are slammed in his face in that scene). A venerable authoress in attendance swooned — over both the novel and the man — when I asked what she thought. When Salter followed Stein’s remarks with a few of his own, he spoke of all the attention the book has been getting and said that it felt like, for once in his literary life, he’d been ushered to the “front of the line.” Later, when I asked him how everything is going, he said, “It’s been big. A lot of stuff. Interviews and coverage. It’s enough to make you envious and me tired.” At 87, Jim Salter did not look tired, but rather energized and elegant, ready as ever to change a tire, then maybe enjoy an excellent martini. “I’ve read the book and will be writing about it,” I said, at that moment not quite sure what I would be writing. He looked up from signing a book none too concerned, an eager fan at his other side. “That would be wonderful,” he replied.