I am here to do two things: scream the praises of James Salter, and throw into the mix a few questions about his place in the larger scope of literature.
How did I make it through a college lit class that taught authors from the second half of the twentieth century and never hear of James Salter? How is it that not one of his pieces is collected in the Norton Anthology of American Literature? How is this guy not alongside Beattie, Carver and Cheever? He certainly mines the same territory as these three. So far I’ve read two works of Salter’s: the collection of stories, Last Night, and his probably best known work, the novel, A Sport and a Pastime. Haven’t heard of them? See what I’m saying? Both are not just good, they are spectacular and worthy of top spots in anyone’s canon. I have been consulting A Sport and a Pastime for three years now whenever, in my own writing, I need to maneuver my way around a scene or construct a sentence. Already, since finishing Last Night a week ago, I’m consulting it as well.
Salter has a way of pinning down precisely the way men and women behave towards each other. That vein runs throughout both books of his that I have read. This particular collection of stories deals with how men and women get along after the dust on their relationships settles and the honeymoon is long past. Many of the characters have been married 5, 10, 20 years and are in the middle or near the end of their tenures with each other. What these characters want, and what gets them in trouble, is not necessarily another relationship, but the prospect of another, perhaps better, relationship, and their willingness to roll the dice on something that is infinitely more enticing than what they have at the moment. In the story “Bangkok,” a woman named Carol tries to use this idea to pull a man whom she used to run around with away from his wife. She promises him a trip together to Bangkok and questions his current status:
“It’s such a cliché, isn’t it? A wife I love.”
“It’s just the truth.”
“And you’re looking forward to the years together, the ecstasy.”
“It’s not ecstasy.”
“You can’t have ecstasy daily.”
“No, but you can have something as good,” she said. “You can have the anticipation of it.”
Many of these characters already have what all of us are looking for when we are young: love, companionship, someone to wake up next to, someone to talk to and be honest with. And yet these characters become discontent. They look at the possibilities and sometimes they grab at those which they think they are missing. We can pan out the frame and use this template to include anything that we want, and that which we think we’re missing: jobs, fitness, money, the respect of peers, the list goes on. It is what makes stories so interesting to us: someone has something he wants. Now, what is he going to do to get it? And what will the collateral damage be? Salter gets this perfectly, especially in the arena of relationships, with his couples in the throes of divorces and affairs and potential divorces and affairs, flailing at the hope of something better, something that they believe might make them whole.
So, why isn’t James Salter more widely known? Why isn’t he taught in any of the classes I’ve ever taken? Perhaps it is how quiet his prose is, how lyrical it can be, how it might border on poetry, and the need for a little more patience and solitude that reading it might entail. Listen to his description of a fictional poem that we never get to read in the story “Give”:
“Lines that seem unconnected gradually became part of a confession that had at its center rooms in the burning heat of August where something has taken place, clearly sexual, but it is also the vacant streets of rural Texas, roads, forgotten friends, the slap of hands on rifle slings and forked pennants limp at parades.”
Salter’s description could be used on his own writing, a language he built in an effort to catch the meaning of what it’s like to have “this thing you have had, that you will always have, but can never have.”
And for that, he deserves his quiet place among giants.