I received a fare alert from JetBlue recently (they’re my favorite domestic airline). They were advertising fall specials. The subject line of the e-mail caught my eye. It read: “$49 fares—straight from the autumn of our hearts!”
As I was sitting down to write this review, it occurred to me that this felicitous expression, “the autumn of our hearts,” captures something about the writing of James Salter. If JetBlue is sending us travel fares from the autumn of their hearts, James Salter’s oeuvre is very much about the autumn of our hearts. A certain tone pervades all of his work and that tone feels to me like a chilly November afternoon: crisp, slightly jaded, leaning in the direction of winter.
Consider the frosty remove of this passage from A Sport and a Pastime (1967), where Salter describes a late fall morning in rural France:
The mornings are growing colder. I enter them unprepared. Icy mornings. The streets are still dark. The bicycles go past me, their parts creaking, the riders miserable as beggars… I have a coffee in the Café St. Louis. It’s as quiet as a doctor’s office. The tables have chairs still upturned on them. Beyond the thin curtains, a splitting cold. Perhaps it will snow. I glance at the sky. Heavy as wet rags. France is herself only in the winter, her naked self, without manners. In the fine weather, all the world can love her. Still, it’s depressing. One feels a fugitive from half a dozen lives.
Like Emerson or Joan Didion, Salter is a masterful writer of individual sentences. If only for that reason, he is the greatest living American writer that most people have never read. His sentences are pristine, gem-like, objects of awe. They evince the most rigorous editing—he has indicated in interviews that he is a fanatical editor—and yet somehow they never feel excessively worked over.
Salter’s prose is tightly controlled but somehow it also flows with a kind of freehanded, painterly flair. You can recognize his work anywhere by the impressionistic diversions that his paragraphs can take. In his new novel All That Is, for instance, he describes Christmas in New York thusly:
It was Christmas in New York, crowds hurrying home in the early darkness, captains of the Salvation Army ringing bells, St. Patrick’s, the brilliant theater of the great store windows, mansions of plenty, the prosperous-looking people. They were playing “Good King Wenceslas,” bartenders were wearing reindeer antlers—Christmas of the Western world, as in Berlin before the war, the deep green forests of Slovakia, Paris, Dickens’ London.
I don’t know how we get from St. Patrick’s cathedral to the forests of Slovakia and Dickens’ London but it works.
James Salter feels like autumn to me, however, for reasons that extend beyond his literary style. Here is what happens in his major works: people live elegant lives filled with sensuous pleasures. They host dinner parties and drink Grand Marnier in the evenings. They bum around major European cities. They spend long afternoons in hotel rooms or empty apartments having tremendous sex with people they shouldn’t. Life is usually just lovely for Salter’s characters. But that loveliness is also deadly. Life is never anything more than the appetites of the flesh. Characters grasp for some higher meaning in their lives but always come away empty-handed. Like J. Alfred Prufrock, they want to squeeze the universe into a ball and roll it towards some overwhelming question but in the end life is just a lovely dinner party. And, eventually, it’s not even that. Couples divorce, people die, friends scatter and then everyone grows old and dies. And, for Salter, that’s all, folks.
There is a crushing and unforgettable sentence in Light Years that illustrates Salter at his most bleak. After a character’s husband dies, she gloomily contemplates the prospects of finding a new partner. She wonders out loud: “Do we really only have one season? One summer…and then it’s over?”
Time is one of Salter’s great themes. In his books, time is limitless—abundant with rich experience—and then suddenly it’s not.
Critics have said Salter has a kind of French sensibility and I would agree with that. Camus is never far beneath the surface. Salter has said specifically that he admires Celine, Gide, Henry de Montherlant, and Henry Miller (who was not French but might as well have been).
A few words about Salter’s marvelous new novel All That Is: The first thing to say is that, if Salter is not quite at the height of his powers here, he is not far off the mark. The book is, in this respect, an extraordinary feat. I cannot think of another American writer who has written so well into his 80s.
This latest novel is a variation on the usual themes. It tracks essentially the entire life of Philip Bowman, beginning with his years in the Navy during World War II and following him through an ill-advised marriage, a career as a literary agent in New York and then into the waning years of his life.
There is much to love in this novel. Bowman’s New York is the old New York of our imagination. In one scene, he stops by the Algonquin Hotel bar for a drink and it’s a fashionable spot, not yet an overpriced tourist trap. There is lots of very good sex in the book, some of it quite deviant. When Bowman decamps for Europe, we get to walk with him through the streets of post-war London, Paris, Spain.
Through it all, Bowman has his ups and downs—desires both fulfilled and unfulfilled—but his prevailing affect is ennui. He is always more detached towards events in his life than he is enthusiastic about them.
He is detached about everything, that is, but the war. A girlfriend asks Bowman “What are the things that have mattered [in life]?” Bowman responds: “Well… if I really examine it, the things that have most influenced my life, I would have to say the navy and the war.” As he ages, the war never really leaves Bowman. It returns in his dreams. He has a random encounter with an old shipmate that seems to haunt him.
I wonder then if this book and, indeed, much of Salter’s work cannot be situated within the literature of post-war disaffection. Salter’s three best books, A Sport and a Pastime, All That Is, and Light Years, are all in their way cultural critiques of the post-war world. The shimmering but fatuous comforts that we won at Normandy and Guadalcanal. Salter himself served in the Pacific Theater, in the Air Force. Through Bowman, he is perhaps admitting something about himself, that the war never really left him either.
The first pages of All That Is are the most optimistic. Bowman is a young lieutenant on a warship in the Pacific. His fleet is dueling the Japanese to the death. Here his life seems to be flowering, glorious. Alas, these scenes take up only twelve pages. The remaining 278 pages—Bowman’s life in New York in the 50s and 60s—are a long autumn of sex, booze and discontent. Maybe it makes sense, then, to think of James Salter as something like an unacknowledged Beat poet. The America that he writes about is, after all, the same post-war America that launched a thousand howls from young poets like Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti. The only difference is that Philip Bowman would never howl; that would be déclassé or, at the very least, a touch extreme. Bowman just shrugs and pours a scotch.