Photo by Lana RysViri arrived and sat down. He was urbane; in that room, at that hour, he seemed the age one longs to be, the age of accomplishments, of acceptance, the age we never achieve. —James Salter, Light Years Three decades on, the man who wrote those words has, by his own admission, long since passed the age at which accomplishments and acceptance seem to matter. He is 80 this year and has a tendency to respond, where the subject of his work is concerned, with self-effacement. (“We had better be careful,” he cautions me midway through our interview. “We’re going to make people think this is something good we’re talking about, and we don’t want to disappoint them.”) Yet, over time, his long-standing reputation as a “writer’s writer” — that double-edged euphemism that says you’re a darling of literary circles, but can’t get arrested in a Barnes & Noble — has gradually given way to broader public awareness. While I was working on this article, two female friends unexpectedly bring Salter up in conversation. One says that she is reading A Sport and a Pastime, the author’s masterful 1967 account of a carnal affair recalled by a self-doubting narrator across tides of uncertain memory. The other mentions that she often gives copies of Light Years, his even greater collection of scenes from two decades in a decaying marriage, to friends as a gift. To which I reply: I hope it wasn’t a wedding gift. Salter — whose slender volume of short stories, Last Night, is newly arrived in bookstores — grew up in New York during the depths of the Great Depression, counted Jack Kerouac among his prep school classmates, then set about casting off the vestments of a coddled childhood, first as a West Point cadet and, later, as a fighter pilot in the Korean War. His first two books, The Hunters (1957) and The Arm of Flesh (1961, subsequently revised and reissued as Cassada), were drawn from those years, and though Salter would eventually regard both as failed experiments in novel-writing, The Hunters in particular remains unsurpassed as a chronicle of aerial combat and its combatants, of the fatal romance between men, tin and sky. Like all of Salter’s writing, that book flowed from a vein of deep understanding. Indeed, few authors have better comprehended the egos and insecurities of men who lust after greatness, be they pilots or playboys, mountain climbers or downhill racers — or merely husbands and fathers, navigating the perilous terrain of la vie quotidienne. “I can’t write about the poor little match girl,” Salter tells me in his lower Manhattan penthouse, just down the street from the World Trade Center. “I have sympathy for her, and I was actually just writing something about a crippled girl, but she’s not the main character in the story, she’s only someone seen en passant, a trigger for something. I suppose I do have a somewhat Olympian view of the world, and perhaps that explains these people. They don’t all end well, but they have more energy, they seem — in a sense — to be more alive. I think it was Tennessee Williams who talked about the glamour of failure, and failed people have a certain appeal. I could write about them, but I don’t write about them often.” With The Hunters, Salter resigned his Air Force commission and headed for Europe. He was just 30, but had already lived a life so full and varied that it seemed the stuff of fiction. And there would be more such lives to come, as an American expatriate living abroad, as a screenwriter crossing the Hollywood minefield and as an elder statesman of American letters. It was in France that he encountered the people and places that would inspire A Sport and a Pastime, the writing of which Salter likens to the creative breakthrough that led Saul Bellow to write The Adventures of Augie March. “The book was there,” Salter says. “I knew what it was. I knew what it should be. Bellow had his memory; I don’t know if he had notes. I had a lot of notes that reminded me of what things were like. But it was all there. And it was in my own language — not as distinctive, of course, as the marvelous language of Bellow. But for me, it was my own language.” That language came forth in the terse, yet evocative, style that would become Salter’s trademark — words chosen with Depression-minded thrift, sentences as precise as dress gray pleats:
Sometimes at night he stands in the crowd. He sees her smile and his heart falls out of him. Among the dancers turning in the orange light, he can find her in an instant. He knows her calves, the shape of her body better than her lover, and those high-heeled shoes with their thin straps, as they move around the floor they are ripping his dreams. To say that A Sport and a Pastime is a landmark of erotica, with
sex scenes that surge and swell like arias, is not to diminish its many other
salient qualities. But the openness of Salter’s writing about sex and sexual relationships
is hard to overvalue at a time when a presidential cum stain is capable of sending
the nation into a moralistic tailspin. That’s particularly true with regard to
Light Years and Salter’s 1997 memoir, Burning the Days,
and their diplomatic-bordering-on-casual view of adultery, as though Salter
were saying that the Ten Commandments should have stopped at nine. “The present
attitudes, which have slowly evolved over a decade or two, are absurd in the extreme,”
notes Salter. “I see these marriages coming apart — boom! blown apart as if by
an explosion — over a case of infidelity. Why? Because that is what is socially
and morally expected, even though life and all of history and everything we see
around us shows us something other than that. However, we’re living in this particular
fiction now, which is a fiction just as remarkable as the Victorian fictions of
the 1890s.
“I would say that Bush has performed far more immorally than Clinton ever did. To take the nation to a war that may or may not have been the right thing to do, to do it under what turned out to be completely mistaken pretenses and never, for one moment, to admit any error or any possibility of error — that strikes me as being perhaps great leadership, but immoral. I wouldn’t want him at the table with me, whereas somebody who has betrayed his wife — well, I’m sitting at the table with him all the time. That is life.” Such candor continues to pervade the stories of Last Night, in which a man discovers that he and his father-in-law share the same mistress, a devoted husband assists his terminally ill wife’s suicide attempt while his lover waits in a downstairs room and, in what may be the collection’s most remarkable piece (“Give”), a wedding anniversary leads to the confession of a homosexual affair — a revelation Salter treats with such nonchalance that it might just as soon be the recitation of cooking instructions. Perhaps most of all, the stories impress for their brutal efficiency — for Salter’s ability, over eight or 10 pages, to boil down years of shared experience between characters into a single moment of revelation that, in turn, seems the key to a heretofore indecipherable cryptogram of human emotions. “I like stories where something happens,” says Salter. “That’s not a prerequisite of a good story. In some stories, nothing happens and you’re very moved by them. But I suppose I was just in that mood where I felt something should happen. I’ve been accused of being a lyric writer and, naturally, anything anybody calls you, you resent in a way and you rebel against.” Not surprisingly for a former fighter pilot, the specter of mortality surfaces time and again in Salter’s work. Twice, in Burning the Days and in the short story “Am Strande von Tanger” (from the collection Dusk), the author has invoked the image of the dying Antonio Gaudí — shabbily dressed and otherwise unrecognizable in a Barcelona street, having been run over by a streetcar — as a romantic prefiguring of his own end. There are also copious references to that other aviator-author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, last seen somewhere out over the Mediterranean. But when Salter writes about death, his tone is less fatalistic than it is welcoming, as if greeting an old friend whose arrival, though unannounced, is as inevitable as air. “I seem to be less concerned about dying than most people,” he acknowledges. “Maybe that’s what it’s all about. I really don’t know. I’ve heard people not quite my age, but within 10 years, say that they think about dying all the time, that they never spend an hour without thinking about it. I must say that doesn’t apply to me.” And so, as he enters his eighth decade, and despite the recent passing of Bellow
and his friend Frank Conroy (who is thanked in Last Night’s acknowledgments),
Salter maintains an attitude that served him well during his flying years. “We
didn’t regard it that seriously,” he says. “You weren’t going to die, and if you
did, that was tough luck.”
LAST NIGHT | By JAMES SALTER | Knopf | 132 pages | $20 hardcover

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