Reviews — From the April 2013 issue

Time’s Current

The autumnal works of James Salter

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Discussed in this essay:

All That Is, by James Salter. Knopf. 304 pages. $26.95.

James Salter’s 1975 novel Light Years is a sensuously written account of time’s fracture of a happy marriage. As the book approaches its mournful end — Nedra and Viri Berland long separated, their home sold, their children grown, their physicality diminished — the erstwhile spouses’ thoughts turn increasingly toward preparations for death. Their movements are sad and slow, their thoughts elegiac. One morning Viri surprises his ex-wife with a phone call, and after some small talk, their conversation becomes philosophical:

“We’re entering the underground river,” she said. “Do you know what I mean?”
“Yes, I know.”
“It’s ahead of us. All I can tell you is, not even courage will help.” . . .
The underground river. The ceiling lowers, grows wet, the water rushes into darkness. The air becomes damp and icy, the passage narrows. Light is lost here, sound; the current begins to flow beneath great, impassable slabs.

What’s most remarkable about this conversation is that it takes place between two people who are forty-three years old. They are preparing to disappear meekly into the underworld not because they are ill but simply because they are past their dominant, attractive peak, like greyhounds who have lost a step. Reading Light Years for the first time at age twenty-five, I didn’t bat an eye at this. It’s a little more consternating now.

That Salter has just produced a new novel, titled All That Is, at eighty-seven, comes as something of a surprise, less because of his age than because it has been thirty-four years since his last one, Solo Faces (though he has published several books of short fiction and non-fiction, a couple of them excellent, in that long interim). It’s hard not to recall poor Nedra and Viri, whose lives were, actuarially speaking, maybe less than half over. The characters around whom Salter builds his fictions have tended, like the Berlands, to lead lives that resemble the careers of athletes: a luminous few years at the apex of their powers, after which they either die young or fade into a sort of tactful exile, away from our sight and our approbation. No one has written more beautifully than Salter about youth and virility, about physical courage, about what it feels like to be in virtuous command of one’s world, about tremendous, symphonic, phenomenally stylized sex. An aspect of the new novel’s drama, then, lies in whether and how the author might choose to engage a realm of experience that he and his characters once seemed to find unimaginable.

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’s novel A Thousand Pardons was published in March by Random House. His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “The Pretender,” appeared in the September 2011 issue.

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