When I first discovered James Salter, no one I knew had ever heard of him. A Sport and a Pastime was an improbable novel, a sort of quasi-French New Wave erotic fantasy narrative, clearly the work of a sophisticated writer, but where had he come from, and what else had he done?
I found the book, if I recall correctly, in a drugstore, on one of those revolving pocketbook display racks. Obviously, the publisher (Bantam Books) had decided to market it as a pornographic book, as the cover was unashamedly suggestive.
The prose was immaculate, impressionistic, deftly seductive. It struck me as reminiscent of European (say, French) cinema. Quiet, moody pans across landscape, surfaces, textures, feelings--very European in that way. And the sex was as seen through the glass of a vicarious American, though very wise and even cynical. The narrative voice obviously gloried in life, like a hedonist, but with a jaded edge. Maybe de Sade through the eyes of Flaubert.
It was the first book that made me really want to see France, not as a tourist, but from the inside out. Indeed, the book seemed a paean to the Gallic spirit. It's like the intricate daydream of an older man, speculating about a fantasy-affair with a French girl. The narrative device places us simultaneously inside an omniscient viewpoint but shifts occasionally to a position of a friend, reporting events second-hand. This minor ambiguity is handled very shrewdly, as if we were being made to feel slightly embarrassed at our own curiosity. Yet it isn't curiosity that drives the story, but fascination.
The first time I heard Salter read was in 1988, when his collection of stories, Dusk and Other Stories, was published. Salter has a subtly "down-east" accent, and he's a brilliant reader. Off the cuff, he's hesitant and uncertain, but when he reads, he's really in his element. I was already a fan of Salter's by this time, but I hadn't read the story he read that night, "American Express." It's a masterpiece of cruel ironies, brilliant quick portraits of people, places, awash in a kind of nostalgic regret, a perfect portrait of the selfish lawyer class of Eastern privilege and presumption. You don't have to like Salter's characters to love how he evokes them--the elegant procession of human frailties he puts before you.
Salter has always been physically active. An amateur mountain climber, and a skier, his sojourns in the Alps led to his inspiration to write Solo Faces , the story of an obsessed American climber. Its description of the life of small Swiss alpine villages, and the hair-raising physical and sensory impressions of being on the rock are the work of a poet.
Light Years  is a sad, majestic ode to a failing marriage. Set in upstate New York, along the Hudson, it documents a social milieu which is undoubtedly familiar to the author. Filled with evanescent description, a muted landscape of light and shadow, it's like a symphonic journey through a series of disappointments, as the inexorable downward descent from passion to fatigue to boredom to bitterness progresses to its logical denouement.
Rumor has it that Salter is closing in on completion of a new novel, which I believe is to be a "comedy." If so, it's likely to be a new departure. Salter is a master of dialogue. I for one can't wait for it to appear.
Maybe someday I'll get on a plane and discover that my seat companion is Salter himself. That's my little fantasy.
I saw Salter read from his latest book of short stories, Last Night, a few years ago in Iowa City--a terrific reading, one of the best I've ever heard. He's a wonderful writer.
I thought that Salter taught briefly not long ago at Iowa. When I heard him read from Burning the Days, he mentioned that he'd been teaching at, I think, Williams College.
He said he loved teaching--it may be slightly sad that he never got into that until very late in his life. He certainly was not a "workshop" product--he struggled all alone in his spare moments while in the service.
The good side of that is he is so much more a worldly man, than an academic. He has trouble fielding questions about form and strategy--for him it's a "sullen craft" instead of a ship inside a bottle--
Another writer who has Salter's same kind of hypnotic focus is Jamaica Kincaid. Kind of an amalgam of Dinesen and Beatrix Potter.
I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.
Glad you read the Salter piece.
He's one of my great heroes.
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