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The autumnal works of James Salter

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.

All That Is does something that Salter’s earlier novels labored not to do: it attaches itself explicitly to the historical and cultural particulars of one place and time, namely New York City and its social environs during the second half of the twentieth century. It opens, briefly, during the Second World War, when a naval lieutenant named Philip Bowman takes part in the brutally climactic invasion of Okinawa; despite references to some of the practical and emotional hardships of Bowman’s childhood (when he was two, his father abandoned the family), it’s clear that both to Bowman and to Salter the war was effectively the moment of his birth. After the armistice, and a stint at Harvard, Bowman comes to New York and takes a job at a literary publishing house called Braden and Baum. He meets a woman — an old-money Virginian named Vivian — in a bar and marries her, though the marriage isn’t cut out to last. Bowman becomes a full-fledged editor at Braden and Baum; travels periodically on business to London, where he begins an extended affair; buys himself a modest house in the Hamptons; and before long — really, it only seems like “before long,” for time in the novel is racing by — he is forty-five and “on good terms with life.” The underground river is nowhere in sight.

Bowman has a lot in common with other Salter heroes. His success rate with women is DiMaggian. He is not wealthy but never seems to count his money either; his work (like that of Light Years’ Viri, an architect) is less important for its quotidian details than for what it signifies about his values. Like his creator, Bowman prizes the world of books above all else and considers authors to be engaged in a battle, heroic no matter the outcome, with time itself.

With the important exception of those in A Sport and a Pastime, Salter’s characters struggle less to overcome their flaws than to satisfy their desire for virtue. Where one might say that most artists’ aim is to interrogate tradition, Salter’s is to find, in a narcissistic and distracted world, authentic ways to honor it. “What do you mean,” an interviewer asked him in 1993, “when you say that there’s a right way to live? Do you mean to be discovered by each of us?” No, Salter replied, “that would be too chaotic. I’m referring to the classical, to the ancient, the cultural agreement that there are certain virtues and that these virtues are untarnishable.” Philip Bowman is possessed of these traditional virtues, one of which, crucially, is a sense of quiet reserve about the virtues themselves: he does not espouse them, because that is the opposite of embodying them. As important as his wartime experience is to him, Bowman doesn’t tell stories about it unless pressed. You do not transform experience; experience transforms you. (Salter himself is a West Point grad who served a half dozen years as an Air Force combat pilot; his first two novels drew on that experience, but his fiction has been circumspect on the subject since.)

But if there is an aspect of human experience with which Salter’s work is most commonly associated, it would have to be sex. He has long had a richly deserved reputation as someone who writes about sex (of the hetero variety) with extraordinary brio. A Salter sex scene — always savvily short — is a remarkable union of high and low, of frankness and rhetorical conceit:

The sky is pale and drained of heat. In this silence like folded flags, Dean’s awareness of things seems extraordinary. He puts his prick into her slowly, guiding it with his hand. It sinks like an iron bar into water. Her eyes close. Her voice is cut adrift.

You sometimes find yourself laughing at these passages — not derisively, but in the way you might laugh at seeing an outrageous trick performed successfully. Bowman’s life affords copious opportunities for such writing, and it is a pleasure to report that, at age eighty-seven, Salter can still bring it:

In bed he lay spent, like a soldier at the end of leave, and she was riding him like a horse, her hair blinding her . . . Her buttocks were glorious, it was like being in a bakery, and when she cried out it was like a dying woman, one who had crawled to a shrine.

(The bakery, in terms of sheer figurative inventiveness, may not quite rise to the level of A Sport and a Pastime’s “they were fucking like weight lifters” — a simile about which dissertations could be written — but it is still pretty insolent stuff.)

There has always been a tension in Salter’s work between the masculine and the feminine — or perhaps “tension” is the wrong term: usually it’s more of a peaceful segregation. This rift is often, and I think mistakenly, extended past questions of content to assessments of Salter’s style. The conspicuous lushness of his prose is presumed to offer some sort of feminine contrast to the virility of his worldview, an old trope that has roots in Hemingway: on the page, masculinity equals reserve. Spare prose is “muscular” prose.

Salter’s prose, though, is both tightly economical and highly, even outrageously, stylized — and not in the direction of the vernacular, as with many of his generational peers, but toward the pole of poetry. There is a Salter line, the way there is a Whitman line or a Berryman line. In prose we tend to associate beautifully crafted sentences with length, but Salter’s line is short:

Autun, still as a churchyard. Tile roofs, dark with moss. The amphitheatre. The great, central square: the Champ de Mars. Now, in the blue of autumn, it reappears, this old town, provincial autumn that touches the bone. The summer has ended. The garden withers. The mornings become chill. I am thirty, I am thirty-four — the years turn dry as leaves.

Short but incantatory, all iambs and dactyls. He is unafraid of meter, unafraid even of interior rhyme, of which there is a lot in his work. (Few authors would have let stand the final words of A Sport and a Pastime: “deep in the life we all agree is so greatly to be desired.”) The punctuation is not fussy — there are plenty of incomplete sentences, and plenty of comma splices — but the really noteworthy absence is that of conjunctions. And this tends to layer the clauses rather than sequence them, to let them generate a rhythm:

The seasons became her shelter, her raiment. She bent to them, she was like the earth, she ripened, grew sere, in the winter she wrapped herself in a long sheepskin coat. She had time to waste, she cooked, made flowers, she saw her daughter stricken by a young man.

This internal layering corresponds to a knack for layering the sentences themselves — for uncoupling them, making them nonconsecutive, not only in terms of chronology but also in point of view. Often it is as if the narrative voice is operating at several removes at once. From Light Years:

He had a drink at the bar, where people entered with cries of greeting to the bartender. In the corridor were women of fifty, dressed for dinner, their cheeks rouged. Two of them sat near him. While one talked, the other ate long, triangular bread and butter pieces, two bites to each. He read the menu and a poem of Verlaine’s on the back. The consommé arrived. It was nine-thirty. He was sailing to Europe. Beneath him as he lifted his spoon, fish were gliding black as ice in a midnight sea. The keel crossed over them like a comb of thunder.

From “Am Strande von Tanger”:

She has small breasts and large nipples. Also, as she herself says, a rather large behind. Her father has three secretaries. Hamburg is close to the sea.

The genius of all this, as it pertains to narrative, is that as carefully and conspicuously worked as they are, Salter’s sentences also read like notes: run-ons, fragments, lists. They are never sloppy or improvisational, but they have a real-time nature, conveying the emotional urgency of experience not as it is recalled but as it is felt:

She tried to play a game, she wasn’t lying near the ditch, she was in another place, in all the places, on Eleventh Street in that first apartment above the big skylight of the restaurant, the morning in Sausalito with the maid knocking on the door and Henry trying to call in Spanish, not now, not now! And postcards on the marble of the dresser and things they’d bought.

That familiar Salter music is still there in the lines of All That Is, though less brazenly so. The wavelike rhythms recur, but overall the prose seems a little simpler, more austere. It’s neither better nor worse than the earlier, more baroque stylings of Light Years or A Sport and a Pastime or the stories in Dusk, but rather the product, one feels, of an older, sparer sensibility:

It had been a long day. The summer had come early. Sun struck the trees of the countryside with dazzling power. In towns along the way, girls with tanned limbs strolled idly past stores that seemed closed. Housewives drove with kerchiefs on their heads and their men in hard yellow hats stood near signs warning Construction Ahead. The landscape was beautiful but passive. The emptiness of things rose like the sound of a choir making the sky bluer and more vast.

This new sensibility enfolds the characters as well. Though Bowman, unlike his predecessors, commands our attention into middle age and beyond — though he continues, past what one might call his aesthetic prime, to live and feel and succeed — his hold on those successes becomes, in an inexorable, almost animal way, more tenuous. He is well into his fifties when he meets in an airport cab a young mother named Christine, some twenty years his junior, with whom he begins an affair. They move in together. He is euphoric. But she winds up falling in love with a more age-appropriate man (a Hamptons contractor, no less) and taking Philip to court in an effort to wrest their house away from him.

His heart is shattered — far more so than it was by his wife’s leaving him, which he seemed to take with equanimity — despite which he cannot bring himself to regret anything: “It would be better never to have known her, but what sense did that make? It had been the luckiest day of his life.” But he, and the novel, are not done with her. Twenty pages later, in a subway station, Philip runs into Christine’s daughter Anet, now a college student, and not only effortlessly seduces her too but exacts through her an extraordinary revenge on her mother — the more extraordinary for Bowman’s own assessment that it is not revenge at all.

This incident happens somewhat late in the book, and under other circumstances I might refrain from giving even that much away; but this is a Salter novel, and so one might as well acknowledge that at its weakest it has the dramaturgical sense of pornography: if a door opens with our hero on one side of it and an attractive new female character on the other, there is only one direction that scene is going to go. It’s fair, if unproductive, to call Salter out as a bit of a sexist, though a sexist of the familiar sort who would likely protest that, on the contrary, he worships women. To him there is really only one drama in the life of a woman, and that is the drama of losing her looks. One minor character (a man) in All That Is actually commits suicide in despair over it. It’s a mind-set that seems less mean-spirited than old-fashioned, which, while perhaps not excusing anything, raises the question of how well Salter’s work itself is likely to age.

To paraphrase Milan Kundera, there is such a thing as the history of the novel, but most novels exist comfortably outside it. One imagines Salter would have no trouble getting his arms around this proposition, for his own inspirations are idiosyncratic and seemingly oblivious to time or genre: Saint-Exupéry, Lorca, Pound. Socially (as his marvelous memoir Burning the Days makes apparent) he may have been at home in the white male literary mainstream of the Sixties and Seventies, but his work has always seemed wonderfully and justifiably unconscious of itself as part of any movement or group or generation. He has resisted, to the extent that one is in control of such things, being representative of his time.

But for all that is (and aspires to be) timeless in Salter’s writing, there are aspects of it that seem, to a contemporary eye, outmoded or worse. Through his work runs a difficult strain of snobbery — usually more to do with appearance than with class, though it is sometimes hard to tell the difference. (“He liked brandy, crystal glasses, vermouth cassis at the Century. His life was solid, well-made, perhaps not happy but comfortable.”) Everyone in his fictional circle is good-looking and sophisticated and reasonably well off, everyone travels extensively but only to Europe (though Salter himself, mostly in connection with his Air Force career, has been all over the world). There is a great respect for social standing, for heritage. At times it approaches comedy; when, in All That Is, one of Philip’s paramours gets a dog, it isn’t just any dog, but one with a name and a bloodline, sired by “a dog with a decent record.” Other instances, though, are more troubling, as in the final sentence of the short story “American Express”:

A young man in a cap suddenly came out of a doorway below. He crossed the driveway and jumped onto a motorbike. The engine started, a faint blur. The headlight appeared and off he went, delivery basket in back. He was going to get the rolls for breakfast. His life was simple. The air was pure and cool. He was part of that great, unchanging order of those who live by wages, whose world is unlit and who do not realize what is above.

And there are other puzzling moments, such as this passage from All That Is, in which Philip Bowman — the sort of name that seems to have no provenance — considers with a touch of envy his friends’ Jewishness:

As he sat there, Bowman was more and more conscious of not being one of them, of being an outsider. They were a people, they somehow recognized and understood one another, even as strangers. They carried it in their blood, a thing you could not know. . . . The unimaginable killing in Europe had gone through them like a scythe — God abandoned them — but in America they were never harmed. He envied them. It was not their looks that marked them anymore. They were confident, clean-featured.

Bowman’s thoughts on the subject resonate because Salter himself was born James Horowitz and changed his name when he resigned his Air Force commission to become a full-time writer: hardly a secret — he writes about it in Burning the Days — but confounding nonetheless in the face of passages like this one (they appear in his earlier books as well) in which fictional men of unspecified WASP lineage seem to be making a progressive effort to overcome their natural aversion to Jews.

One fears, at least in the near term, for the reputation of any artist carrying all this twentieth-century cultural baggage. It would be going much too far to compare Salter’s case with that of one of his favorite writers, Ezra Pound; rather, the author whose dilemma most resembles Salter’s is probably the late and criminally neglected Southern writer Peter Taylor, who wrote about the glories and tribulations of moneyed white society in the pre–civil rights South in which he was raised. Like Salter, Taylor made his name writing sympathetically about a subculture for which we no longer have much sympathy. (Seven years before his death, in 1994, at the age of seventy-seven, Taylor sat for an interview with The Paris Review, where I was then an editor; I remember a small office insurrection over Taylor’s use of the archaic term “Guinea nigger.”) What saves Taylor’s work, in addition to the Jamesian flow of his prose, is the fact that he catches this society not at its apex but in its twilight, at the moment when its confused figures are trying to determine how to survive the death of all they value. Often the luckiest fate he can offer them is to die first.

Something related is happening to Bowman and his contemporaries in All That Is; they recognize that the world around them is changing in ways that will leave them behind. Bowman privately opposes the Vietnam War even though his own wartime experience remains the most formative and valuable of his life. Jews are no longer segregated from high society (“no one called them Jewesses anymore”). And women — well, things are changing there in ways useless to resist: “He didn’t like women who looked down on you for whatever reason. Within limits, he liked the opposite. . . . But the city was teeming, the feminist movement had changed it.” Women can even be found within a One Percenter refuge like the Century Club:

“They’re going to be members here, what’s your position on that? . . . We’re in the middle of the woman thing. They want equality, in work, marriage, everywhere. They don’t want to be desired unless they feel like it . . . The thing is, they want a life like ours. We both can’t have a life like ours.”

Perhaps the most undermining change is referred to in the final pages of the book:

The power of the novel in the nation’s culture had weakened. It had happened gradually. It was something everyone recognized and ignored. All went on exactly as before. That was the beauty of it. The glory had faded but fresh faces kept appearing, wanting to be part of it. . . . [Bowman and his colleagues] were like nails driven long ago into a tree that then grew around them. They were part of it by now, embedded.

One wonders in retrospect if the Berlands’ focus on the “underground river,” premature as it may have seemed, wasn’t also a kind of protective reflex against seeing their own values grow alien to the world.

Through even the titles of Salter’s books — All That Is, Dusk, Light Years — runs a belief in the transitory nature of the material world, and of the human passions that illuminate it. That belief remains consistent, but from the vantage of this unexpected late work, it reveals a new aspect. For Nedra and Viri, for A Sport’s Dean and Anne-Marie, for Vernon Rand of Solo Faces, maximum physical grace was a conduit to the notion of eternity, of the world that never changes; All That Is is about the world that inescapably does.

Lately Salter has been on a kind of victory tour, collecting various prizes for career achievement: the Rea Award for the Short Story, The Paris Review’s Hadada Award, the PEN/Malamud Award. He has always been particularly cherished by the reader for whom the pleasures of reading are distinct from the pleasures of story. And he deserves to be read; A Sport and a Pastime, in particular, is more eminently than ever one of the best, most sophisticated and moving American novels of its generation. “The poets, writers, the sages and voices of their time,” Salter writes in Burning the Days,

they are a chorus, the anthem they share is the same: the great and small are joined, the beautiful lives, the other dies, and all is foolish except honor, love, and what little is known by the heart.

We will probably need to get a little more chronological distance from Salter, and from the prejudices of our historical moment, before that sort of impartial judgment becomes available to us. In the meantime, it is gratifying to see him enjoy at least some of the recognition he deserves, and to have the opportunity to feel surprised all over again by the power of his style and the youthful clearness of his eye.

’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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