James Salter: A Life From Scratch
Having passed away on June 19th, 2015, not long before writing this, James Salter’s departure triggered in me a genuine sadness. He’d made it to 90 years old, and had—it would seem—lived a full life, with children and grandchildren, multiple marriages, over 100 live air combat missions during WWII and the Korean War (that classic glory-rich profession), and the unmistakable status as a “writer’s writer.” What this classification really means, however, is that he was critically acclaimed and appreciated by a few, while simply not selling books to the mass public. To call this a shame would be a drastic understatement, and the one solace I take in this great artist’s death is that maybe it could stir up a Salter Renaissance; an appreciation of his prose, his true-to-life characters, and the overall style of heartfelt care brought to every stunning, laconic sentence. Here’s to hoping his personal death equates to a professional birthing, and for the injection of his name into any literary household.
James Salter published his first novel, The Hunters (1957), at 31 years of age, and his final work of fiction, All That Is (2013), at 87. In this vast-spanning career, which included a book on travel writing and a celebrated memoir, he proved to his readers time and again how powerful, how transformatively beautiful his work really was.
“I didn’t want to become too masculine a writer, because my life had been masculine,” he said in an interview in 2012. This is perhaps a counter to the common comparison to Hemingway that frequented his career. Though he listed Thomas Wolfe and André Gide as far more direct influences, it was the rapid, declarative sentences that brought up whisperings of “Minimalism,” and yet I personally see far more Wolfe than Hemingway in his work. Salter had a style entirely his own; while the sentences were short they overflowed with a kind of lyricism impossible to describe without actual exposure to his words.
I admire myself more on the page than I do in reality." This is a sentiment shared by many writers, which is that what they type/scrawl on paper better represents whom they are than any dinner party conversation or hotel room interview. When I first read A Sport and a Pastime (1967), all I could think about, besides how much I was enjoying the book, was how truly sensitive the writing felt; how attuned he was to the mysteries and subtleties of raw emotion and, perhaps most difficult for a writer to capture, the unmasking of erotic love on the page he admired.
I then moved on to Light Years (1975), a novel so rich with sensation and moral truth that I had trouble reading it for any lengthy stretch of time. It was, like the majority of his prose, as accessible as most summer reads, but opened you up and exposed you in a way that far surpassed what you expect from scanning some pot boiler on a beach. I had heard the author Jonathan Lethem (whose opinion I deeply respect) recommend Light Years by listing it as one of the books he always returns to when needing to get inspired. Considering Lethem was one of my greatest sources of inspiration, it seemed natural to pursue the book (and the writer) who did so for him. I was not disappointed. Nor was I with All That Is, his final novel that left you in the belief that he had so much more to say; he might as well have just been getting started, for the story raised questions that it quite purposefully did not answer, and all you wanted when closing shut the book was for there to be more.
As a young and, it's fair to say, aspiring writer myself, it's easy for me to empathize with the youthful James Arnold Horowitz (right before he changed his name to Salter), when he teetered on the edge of a truly life-altering decision. To the luck and benefit of us all, he took that crazy plunge: "I decided to write or perish," he said. "It was like starting life from scratch."
While I’ve only read and enjoyed three of his works of fiction, his death sparked and instant rereading of A Sport and a Pastime and the eagerness to get my hands on not only his other (award-winning) fiction, but his memoir as well. While James Salter may no longer be scribbling little reminders to himself and sticking them in notebooks and on his wall, never again to punch away at his electric typewriter, his passing has certainly launched the Salter Renaissance within me, one I can’t wait to indulge. I hope it will do the same for you.