Memories of a time when you could still be an American hero
David Annand reviews James Salter's first novel in 30 years
For 50-odd years, James Salter has been the writer's writer. Richard Ford calls him "the Master", Bellow was an admirer, Roth, too, and all over Brooklyn satchels bulge with copies of Light Years and The Hunters.
It was something, I suspect, that always worked better for us than it did for him. We got that insider buzz of knowing that we were part of the cloistered few. He got lots of writerly plaudits about the precision of his sentences, but was denied, perhaps, the deep thematic engagement that comes with central cultural import.
Either way, it's over. In a late flurry he has picked up several major awards and, now, to coincide with the publication of what will surely be his last novel, across-the-board adulation, not least at the recent Dublin Writers Festival.
You might have thought it irritating for old Jim that all this has happened deep into his 80s, past the age when you would want to take full advantage of the perks of full-blown literary celebrity. But really it's of little consequence – he's already done enough living and then some. He was a combat fighter pilot in the Korean War. He became an accomplished skier; a daring mountain climber (Solo Faces, a novel, appeared on the topic in 1979); and found time to write five novels, dozens of short stories, non-fiction and some poetry.
This extraordinary life has been chronicled most explicitly in his wonderful memoir Burning the Days, but it animates all his fiction from youth to old age, starting with The Hunters, his account of would-be aces in Korea, which celebrates, as he does throughout his work, devotion and our striving for greatness. His time in Europe birthed A Sport and a Pastime, a paean to postwar France. Slender, cynical and bruisingly sexy, the novel represents the first full flowering of his mature style; his exquisite sentences and extraordinary evocation of place.
If you were to read Salter chronologically, it would be at this point in his career that you might start to wonder if he was, as Cézanne thought of Monet, "only an eye, but my god what an eye". The sentences were beautiful, but was there any substance behind the glittering prose?
It's a question that he answered emphatically with Light Years. A novel of middle life, published in 1975 when Salter himself was 50, it charts the disintegration of a marriage in mid-century New York. Light-filled and sensuous, it captures perfectly the double bind of family life, its simultaneous liberation and entrapment. It is increasingly recognised as a great American novel, not least for its crystalline prose which encourages, even compels, you to read it not passively but actively, even – as Salter-fan Susan Sontag might have it – erotically.
It's an approach that readers would be well served to take with All That Is, Salter's first novel in more than 30 years, and not just because sex is its primary concern.
Like Light Years it is set in the golden years of postwar America and is studded with magnificent portraits of minor characters, their whole essences captured, somehow, in a gesture and two lines of dialogue. And like Light Years it is loosely plotted and mercurial.
The novel charts the life of Phillip Bowman born, like Salter, in 1925, making him just old enough to see wartime navy service in the waters off Okinawa, before he settles into life as a literary editor in New York, where he meets Neil Eddins, a fellow editor.
While Eddins lives in contented bliss upstate, Bowman marries a Virginian Nabob, whom he quickly divorces before embarking on a string of sexually charged affairs from which he doesn't always emerge with his honour intact.
As unlike the product of a creative writing MFA as you could possibly imagine, All That Is is evidently a novel written at the end of a life. Its structure is like that of memory: associative, tangential, unpatterned. Characters come at the reader as recollections do – complete and fleeting. It is an account of an existence, an attempt to forestall its oblivion. A record of a time when it was possible still to be a hero in America. As Salter himself says in the epigraph: "There comes a time when you realise that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real."
His characters come from a narrow social stratum, his sexual politics are locked along with so much else of what he does in the 30 years after the war. But as he says in Light Years, we are "born in disregard of the times". In that book he also declared: "Life is weather. Life is meals." To which we might add: life is that which is written down. And that, it would seem, is all that is.