In an epigraph at the beginning of his new novel, All That Is, James Salter announces that he now realizes everything is a dream, the only reality is that which is preserved in writing. If this is true, Salter—the writer if not the man—has a lot to answer for. I have just spent the past few weeks reading a number of his books, and it seems to me that if anything is a dream, it is the motive force behind the work of this highly acclaimed writer who, for more than fifty years, has been producing novels and stories whose style is uniformly praised but whose content is rarely addressed. Now eighty-seven, Salter has been collecting one award after another for literary achievement, and while I don't mean to rain on his parade, at this point in his career it is hard to avoid asking: Who is this man, and what is he actually talking about?
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James Salter was born James Horowitz in 1925 into an upwardly mobile Jewish family. His mother was a beauty and his father a graduate of West Point who attained the rank of lieutenant and then left the military to make a pile in New York real estate development. James grew up in a world of money and glamour, and came of age with the expectation that neither would ever come to an end. But they did. During the Second World War, Salter's father was recalled to active duty as a major. Here, in the wartime army, he achieved the unrivaled success that proved his ruination. "When it was over," Salter tells us in his celebrated memoir, Burning the Days (1997), "he was never able to fit in again." Peacetime life now seemed prosaic. "It was the grandiose that attracted him. He was operatic. He lived on praise and its stimulus and performed best, only performed, when the full rays were shining on him." All too soon, the money was gone and along with it the never-to-be-forgotten glamour.
At the age of seventeen, James, like his father before him, entered West Point, and upon graduation from the academy went into the Army Air Forces, where he developed a love of flying that nothing else in his long life—neither sex nor money nor fame—has ever matched. It was not just the thrill of flying itself ("the imperishability of it, the brilliance") but the thrill of flying in the military, especially during wartime, that he truly cherished: "the comradeship, the idealism, the youth." It was with joy that he served as a fighter pilot in the Korean War.
Yet in 1957, the thirty-two-year-old flier left the military, changed his name to Salter, and embarked on the writing life. Since the late '50s, Salter has published nine books of fiction and four of nonfiction. Almost all of this work is drenched in an idealizing nostalgia for an elusive "good life"—invariably associated with taste, money, and mythic sex—that, from the beginning, was received with open arms by readers famous and obscure for whom Salter's lush, evocative writing was experienced as haunting.
"It was the autumn of 1958. Their children were seven and five. On the river the color of slate, the light poured down." Thus begins the second chapter of the 1975 novel Light Years, which tells the story of an apparently magical couple—he's talented, she's beautiful—who live on the river in a house composed of "rooms in which life was gathered, rooms in the morning sunlight, the floors spread with Oriental rugs . . . apricot, rouge and tan, rugs which though worn seemed to drink the sun, to collect its warmth; books, potpourris, cushions in colors of Matisse, objects glistening like evidence . . . clear crystal dice, pieces of staghorn, amber beads, boxes, sculptures." Yet the inner life of the couple is "mysterious. . . . From far off it seems a unity . . . but closer it begins to separate, to break into light and shadow. . . . Within there is no form, only prodigious detail that reaches everywhere: exotic sounds, spills of sunlight, foliage, fallen trees, small beasts that flee at the sound of a twig-snap, insects, silence, flowers."
Reading these words in 1975, one might have thought that Light Years was going to break one's heart the way Tender Is the Night did, or Revolutionary Road. In 2013, it might feel otherwise.
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The novel that put Salter on the literary map was A Sport and a Pastime, published in 1967. The narrator is an American in his thirties, living in a provincial town in France, who is visited by a college dropout ten years his junior. This boy-man meets a girl in the town and, with her, falls into an extraordinary affair of sexual obsession. The book is a tour de force of erotic realism—no reader can help feeling weakened, then drained by the enveloping force of its nonstop sensuality. Again and again—and again!—we are given, through the astonishingly voyeuristic narrator mourning the approaching loss of his own virility, the same graphic description of the hypnotic sex that is the novel's reason for being. The boy's prick enters the girl every which way—it slides, it thrusts, it wedges, it jams, "it sinks like an iron bar into water"—and he comes and comes and comes. This is definitely the man's story: The girl slithers and grinds and moans, but she is clearly instrumental—we never see her achieving orgasm, because her face is continually in the pillows. She is only and always taken from behind (about which more later).
On occasion, the narrator takes the train to Paris, and there he socializes. The description of a single party says it all. Given by a French journalist, a man who "has the calm irreverence one achieves only from close observation of the great," the party is attended by diplomats, writers, celebrities—an aging actress "made out of yesterdays," a man whose wife is a Whitney. The narrator tells us, in a tone laced with knowing envy, that "one meets a certain kind of people here . . . people with money and taste." The perfect complement to heroic sex.
A Sport and a Pastime achieved enormous critical success and a cult following that is still going strong: readers everywhere for whom the situation remains compelling, the sensuality transcendent, the prose riddled through with an essence of longing that achieves metaphor. Good enough. What is not good enough is that as the books and the years have accumulated, the unwavering reverence in Salter's work for sex, money, and taste repeatedly delivers itself in the same lush style, but without any appreciable development. Which brings us to All That Is, a remarkable concentrate of the books that preceded it.
Philip Bowman is a World War II veteran: The battles, the comradeships, the shared dangers remain the emotional highlight of his life. After the war, he manipulates his way into Harvard, makes a few social connections, wanders around for a while, and finally comes to rest in a small, classy New York publishing house, where he works as an editor for the next thirty years. He also has one affair after another. He does marry Vivian of Virginia-horse-country wealth; but after the divorce, there is Enid and Christine and Anet and Ann. Women are at the very heart of things. Not women as fellow creatures but women as the source of an enraptured virility that alone makes life worth living for Bowman. Around the affairs collects the signature Salter preoccupation with wartime glory, money and class distinction, and sex, sex, sex. Times without number in this book we are treated to an evocation of beautiful houses, elegant clothing, glamorous gatherings; and times without number "he parted her legs and knelt between them . . . caressed her for a long time . . . turned her over and put his hands on her shoulders and then slowly down along her body as if it were the neck of a goose. . . . He wanted it to last a long time. . . . Ah, ah, ah. The walls were falling away. The city was collapsing like stars."
There isn't a woman in the book whom Bowman doesn't turn over and take from behind; by the same token, there isn't a woman in the book, except for the last one (and the returns aren't in on her), who doesn't leave him. Why this is we can never actually know, as we experience these characters—Bowman and the women—only through an accumulation of surfaces; we are never inside any of them. The self-knowledge required for reflection or interpretation is absent. Engagement with work or ideas or the world beyond the self—elements that might prove revelatory—is nonexistent.
Ten pages from the end, an unknowing but somewhat fatigued Bowman, now in his late fifties, stands musing out the window at an office Christmas party. "He was under the spell of other Christmases. He was remembering the winter during the war, at sea, far from home and on the ship, Armed Forces Radio playing carols, 'Silent Night,' and everyone thinking back. With its deep nostalgia and hopeless longing it had been the most romantic Christmas of his life."
At this moment, the last love—another editor in the publishing house—makes her entrance. Bowman worries that it might be too late for him; in shorts his legs seem to belong to an old man. But then he puts on his Tripler & Co. suit (the midnight blue with a thin pinstripe) and feels reassured. Some months into the affair, the woman says she'd love to go to Venice. Bowman hesitates—he's been there so many times!—but he gradually relents. His weariness lifts, and he begins planning. Best to go in the fall, he tells her. "Yes," he says in the final line of the book. "Let's go in November. We'll have a great time."
Certainly, it is true that most writers have only one story in them—that is, as Flannery O'Connor put it, only one they can make come alive. Then again, it is also true that it is the writer's obligation to make the story tell more the third or fourth time around than it did the first. For this reviewer, Salter's work fails on that score. In his eighties he is telling the story almost exactly as he told it in his forties.
The problem is that he should have been born ten or fifteen years before 1925. Then the romantic realism of self-mythologizing postwar literature—the kind that rose with Hemingway after the First World War and sank with Irwin Shaw after the Second—might have allowed Salter to go on writing sentences like "In the riches of [her] smile one would never be lonely or forgotten" without penalty throughout a long writing life. Today, however, it is sad and confusing to read such sentences—so out of touch with the life we are actually living—emerging from the work of an artist whose love of expressive language is as much to be celebrated now as it was half a century ago.
Vivian Gornick's most recent book is Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life (Yale University Press, 2011).