Award-win­ning nov­el­ist known for so­phis­ti­cated prose

Los Angeles Times - - OBITUARIES - By Hil­lel Italie Italie writes for As­so­ci­ated Press. news.obits@latimes.com

James Sal­ter, the prizewin­ning au­thor ac­claimed for his so­phis­ti­cated, gran­u­lar prose and sober­ing in­sights in “Light Years,” “A Sport and a Pas­time” and other fic­tion, died Fri­day in Sag Har­bor, N.Y. He was 90.

Sal­ter’s death was con­firmed by Al­fred A. Knopf spokesman Paul Bo­gaards. He did not im­me­di­ately pro­vide other de­tails.

Sal­ter, a life­long brooder about im­per­ma­nence and mor­tal­ity, was the kind of writer whose lan­guage ex­hil­a­rated read­ers even when re­lat­ing the most dis­tress­ing nar­ra­tives, from “A Sport and a Pas­time” to the sto­ries in the 2005 re­lease “Last Night” to the 2013 novel “All That Is.”

Sal­ter didn’t en­joy great com­mer­cial suc­cess but was highly ad­mired by crit­ics and by such peers as Jhumpa Lahiri, Richard Ford and the late Peter Matthiessen, his friend and long­time neigh­bor on Long Is­land. He won the PEN/Faulkner prize for the 1988 col­lec­tion “Dusk and Other Sto­ries” and re­ceived two life­time achieve­ment hon­ors for short story writ­ing, the Rea Award and the PEN/Mala­mud prize.

Lahiri was among those who thought Sal­ter wrote some of the most per­fect sen­tences in the English lan­guage.

“Read­ing Sal­ter taught me to boil down my writ­ing to its essence,” Lahiri once wrote. “To in­sist upon the right words, and to re­mem­ber that less is more. That great art can be wrought from quo­tid­ian life.”

Whether the sub­ject was love or war, Sal­ter won­dered how we change and how we don’t change, whether there is any con­nec­tion be­tween our young selves and our older selves. Sal­ter wrote long enough to watch him­self evolve on pa­per, as if his works com­prised a kind of par­al­lel life that he ob­served and cre­ated.

“If you were the same per­son in your 40s as you were as a high school sopho­more you would be a very strange cre­ation,” he told the As­so­ci­ated Press in 2005.

Sal­ter was born James Horowitz, but as a writer be­came James Sal­ter, a change that “started an en­tirely new life,” he once said. He was an Air Force pi­lot, a swimming pool sales­man and a film­maker — his cred­its in­clud­ing the short doc­u­men­tary “Team Team Team” and the fea­ture film “Three,” star­ring Sam Water­ston.

The son of a real es­tate sales­man, he was born in New York City on June 10, 1925. He re­called in his 1997 memoir, “Burn­ing the Days,” that he was an obe­di­ent child who was “close to my par­ents and in awe of my teach­ers.” He en­joyed read­ing but only later be­came se­ri­ous about it.

Like his fa­ther, he at­tended West Point. He en­tered the Army Air Corps, later the U.S. Air Force. He flew more than 100 mis­sions dur­ing the Korean War and re­signed from the Air Force as a ma­jor in 1957.

He found his call­ing as a writer while serv­ing in the mil­i­tary, read­ing widely and work­ing on sto­ries. And he found his sub­ject, not just war, which he wrote about in his first two nov­els, but the whole idea of tran­sience, of bonds formed and sev­ered.

The year he left the mil­i­tary, he de­buted as an au­thor with “The Hun­ters,” a tough, straight­for­ward novel in the Hem­ing­way tra­di­tion that stayed in print even though he found it “a lit­tle bit sopho­moric.” It was adapted into a 1958 film of the same name, star­ring Robert Mitchum.

Af­ter a sec­ond novel, “The Arm of Flesh,” that so dis­sat­is­fied him he rewrote it years later as “Cas­sada,” he was liv­ing in Paris, read­ing “ex­alted” short nov­els such as Wil­liam Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dy­ing” and craft­ing a story that would be “li­cen­tious but pure,” a book “filled with im­ages of an un­chaste world more de­sir­able than our own.”

“A Sport and a Pas­time” was a brief, poetic, al­most su­per­nat­u­rally sexy novel about a Yale dropout and his French girl­friend. Re­jected by sev­eral pub­lish­ers be­fore Ge­orge Plimp­ton agreed to re­lease it, in 1967, through the Paris Re­view, the novel is now re­garded as a clas­sic work of erotic literature.

“There’s no ques­tion it was a break­through,” Sal­ter told the As­so­ci­ated Press. “Look, by that time I had read Ca­mus, I had read Gide. I had read writ­ers of greater el­e­gance and greater in­tel­lec­tual sinew than you usu­ally find in Amer­i­can writ­ers.”

“A Sport and a Pas­time,” like fu­ture Sal­ter works such as “Light Years,” demon­strated the heights and the lim­its of sex and love. Par­adise is gained, but only for a mo­ment or a se­ries of mo­ments. Re­la­tion­ships break up, peo­ple move on, change, so that what hap­pened be­fore seems to have hap­pened to some­body else.

Sal­ter was mar­ried twice, most re­cently to Kay El­dredge, and had five chil­dren. He worked slowly, pub­lish­ing six nov­els and two story col­lec­tions, along with his memoir and writ­ings about food and travel

Joe Tabacca For The Times

WRITER’S WRITER Nov­el­ist James Sal­ter didn’t en­joy great com­mer­cial suc­cess, but he was highly

re­garded by crit­ics and peers such as Richard Ford and Peter Matthiessen.

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