James Salter remembered as an underrated master of narrative
James Salter, who died Friday at 90, had a small but exquisite literary output, earning him distinction as a contemporary American master.
Salter long craved but never achieved widespread popularity, settling instead for critical acclaim and praise from a small, admiring audience.
This writer’s writer had been one of the last great living American postwar novelists.
He wrote so scrupulously, his sentences so carefully crafted, that fellow novelist Richard Ford came to say: “It is an article of faith among readers of fiction that James Salter writes American sentences better than anybody writing today.”
Salter wrote his first novel, “The Hunters” (1956) when he was an Air Force fighter pilot. He flew in the Korean War alongside the astronaut Buzz Aldrin — the second man to walk on the moon.
Although the book, written between dogfights with Chinese fighter jets in Korea, was made into a Hollywood film starring Robert Mitchum, his five subsequent novels had a much smaller though no less adoring readership.
‘Everything is a dream’
At age 87, Salter published his last novel, “All That Is” (2013), his observational powers undiminished by age as he traced the life of book editor Phillip Bowman in postwar New York.
“There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real,” he wrote in the book’s epigraph.
It was with that valedictorian effort as a consummate storyteller that Salter finally achieved some of the global reputation he had sought throughout his career.
French bookshop workers voted it their favorite book of 2014.
A handsome, ramrod-straight sportsman even into his late 80s, Salter died Friday during “a gym session” at Sag Harbor near his home in Bridgehampton in New York state, his French publisher Olivier Cohen said.
Born James Horowitz on June 10, 1925 in New York, Salter trained at the prestigious West Point military academy and survived a crash-landing while training as a U.S. Air Force pilot before being posted to the Pacific.
His father was a victim of the Wall Street crash of 1929, plunging the family into financial misery.
The young Salter took refuge in reading, devouring works by Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Rudyard Kipling, Lord Byron and Ernest Hemingway.
The attack on Pearl Harbor marked a life-changing moment for Salter, who joined the U.S. Air Force.
He idolized “The Little Prince” and “Night Flight” author Antoine de Saint-Exupery, pilot writer like him.
After “The Hunters,” his experience in the military returned to haunt him for his memoir “Burning the Days” (1997).
He also drew on his military experience to describe the lives of officer in an Air Force squadron for the 1961 novel “The Arm of Flesh,” later extensively revised and initially reissued as “Cassada” in 2000.
From his military career, Salter retained a certain rigor and elegance evident in his writing, devoid of flourishes, where adjectives are carefully chosen and words leap from the pages.
In “A Sport and a Pastime,” a brief novel packed with eroticism in its tale of the steamy love affair between Yale dropout Phillip Dean and young French shopgirl AnneMarie Costallat, Salter brushed against controversy.
“She comes to life with a soft exhausted sound, like someone saved from drowning,” he wrote in the novel.
Salter told The New York Times that his publisher at the time, Harper, had balked at the “more than normal amount of sex” in the book, and that publishers were “holding it like it was a pair of dirty socks.”