Salter is gone. It had to happen sooner or later. But if anybody was going to last deep into his hundreds, it might have been James Salter. He was so relentlessly curious about human vulnerability and dissatisfaction. The man must have walked down the street ripping off dirty secrets and unfulfilled desires left and right just by looking at people. He found such beauty in our inability to live up to our lives’ promise. That alone—the infinite ways we screw up the finite years we’re granted—might have kept James Salter alive another decade. But our bodies and our brains don’t seem designed, ultimately, to cooperate and Salter joins the ranks of the dead where he doesn’t belong. Yet who does? I think of that line of Dante that goes something like: Damn, I hadn’t thought death undid so many…
The New York Times obituary focused, it seemed to me, almost exclusively on how unfamous Salter was. As if this is the sole basis by which we judge the life of a writer. When we will cut this shit out? And enough with the writer’s writer stuff. Salter didn’t write for other writers; he wrote for readers. Salter captured, like few ever have, the ecstasy and the ugliness of love. Not everything he did was perfect, thank God, and I remember once being so frustrated by the lushiness of a sentence Light Years that I threw the book across the room. A few seconds later, I dove across the carpet for it because I had to go on with it. How could I live if I didn’t know what happened to Nedra? I couldn’t go on reading, I had to go on reading. That’s the sort of writer Salter is: he reels you in, he repels you in, he reels you in…
This morning I’ve been packing up my books. We’re leaving the house on Purple Gate Road. So I sit here amid all these cardboard boxes searching for my North Point Press copy of Salter’s first book of stories. Dusk And Other Stories, unlike the novels, is free of those sentences Salter is—in fact—famous for. Reviewers and writers have always done backflips over Salter’s sentences. I’ve always read this is a kind of backhand. Oh, that James Salter, such glorious sentences! As if the whole package didn’t quite measure up to the glory of those sentences. But in Salter’s stories the sentences are far more compact and, mercifully, less noticeable. In the stories, character, not language is paramount. In the stories, there is no lushiness, a word I believe I’ve made up, but am going to stick with here. In the stories, Salter, like Isaac Babel (who he revered and lamented that he’d discovered too late) can drive a steak-knife through your heart. Instead of pulling it out you’ll want to keep the blade where it is and twist it around some more. Read Salter’s stories at your peril. In seven pages he can cut deeper into the desperate soul of, for instance, a marriage, than any other writer I know. Christ, Dusk has got to be here somewhere. My daughter’s still asleep, for at least another ten minutes. I’m running short of time.
I’ve failed. The kid’s up. The sirens are going off. She can’t find her stuffed duck, and her other stuffed duck. Hang on Boo Bird, gimme a second here. I’m paying a little tribute. And so Dusk remains, for the moment anyway, been swallowed by all these other, mostly lesser books. I did manage to find Salter’s last novel, All That Is, a baggy book with much Salterian brilliance, as well as some of that annoying male gaze—phrases like her gorgeous body—that Salter unfortunately indulged in too much in the longer works. And yet, who can’t forgive him? Even James Salter, at times, couldn’t quite say what he meant to say and had to resort to her gorgeous body. In the end it makes me respect the man even more.
Screw it that he wasn’t more famous.
In tribute to a reader’s writer here’s a paragraph from the second to last-page of All That Is. The point of view is that of a man contemplating death and all the things that only he will remember:
What if there should be no river but only endless lines of unknown people, people absolutely without hope, as there had been in the war. He would be made to join them, to wait forever. He wondered then, as he often did, how much of life remained for him. He was certain of only one thing, whatever was to come was the same for everyone who had ever lived. He would be going where they all had gone and – it was difficult to believe – all he had known would go with him, the war, Mr. Kindrigen and the butler pouring coffee, London those first days, the lunch with Christine, her gorgeous body like a separate entity, names, houses, the sea, all he had known and things he had never known but were there nevertheless, things of his time, all the years, the great liners with their invincible glamour readying to sail, the band playing as they ere backed away, the green water widening, the Matsonia leaving Honululu, theBremen departing, the Aquitania, Ile de France, and the small boats following behind. The first voice he ever knew, his mother’s, was beyond memory, but he could recall the bliss of being close to her a child. He could remember his first schoolmates, the teachers, the details of his own room at home – life beyond reckoning, the life that had been opened to him and that he owned.
Okay, lushy maybe, and in a story Salter would never have allowed a paragraph like this to pass muster. But I’ll take it, I’ll take it all, even gorgeous body, and I think of my own mother’s voice, and my own first friends, and my own old room, and with my daughter—my own beautiful daughter—shouting now at the top her lungs—I’ll squeeze in a little agnostic’s prayer for James Salter wherever he is today. A man who knew the hurt we inflict on each other and loved us anyway.
I was able, at the last moment, to dig out a copy of Last Night, Salter’s second and last book of stories. This is what I mean when I say the prose in the stories calls less attention to itself than to the characters:
– You know something?
– I’ve had good sex since I was fifteen, she said.
He looked up.
– I didn’t start that young, he confessed.
– Maybe you should have.
– Good advice. Little late though.
– Do you remember when we first got started?
– I remember.
– We could hardly stop, she said. You remember?
– It averages out.
– Oh, great, she said.