Thursday, April 25, 2013

James Salter: A connoisseur's pleasure

Here, via TONY, is my review of the new James Salter novel. That is a cool thing to type! Cool that I was able to write it up, yes, but far cooler that the novel exists, period. I do not "follow" very many writers, not because I'm not interested, but because following music as closely as I do is pretty time-consuming. I tend to stick with the sure bets. For me, Salter is one of those.

A friend passed me a copy of Light Years about ten years ago. I enjoyed it, but I'm not sure I was really ready to appreciate it. A few years ago, I brought A Sport and a Pastime with me on a U.S. tour that my band did. That novel tore me up, haunted me. It is a beautiful book—obsessive, sensuous and, in a way, terrifying. I used to love Henry Miller, but in my personal canon, Salter has supplanted him as the go-to guy for searing insight—the writer who x-rays most thoroughly what drives us, what we keep hidden, what we choose to show and to whom. He strives for truth and, equally, for beauty.

On the latter point (beauty, and by this I mean, the handsomeness of the prose), there's a good bit of discussion in an in-depth New Yorker profile of Salter that ran recently. In that piece, Salter's core brilliance, his fashioning of exquisite sentences was portrayed as a double-edged sword: both the thing he's revered for and the thing that's overshadowed what other gifts he might possess. (Storytelling, for example, which is there in spades in All That Is.) Even Salter himself, in the piece, says something to the effect of "I want to get away from the 'writer of great sentences' thing," referring to All That Is. This notion of a writer's reputation apparently preoccupies Salter, as it does Nick Paumgarten, the writer of the piece. The article is titled "Why James Salter Matters," but in a way, it takes pains to explain why he doesn't matter as much as he should, delving into all the reasons why someone might not want to read him, or why his work isn't held in higher esteem. (For example: His characters are overprivileged and underpoliticized, oblivious.)

As a reader, a literal consumer of Salter, his reputation doesn't matter that much to me. Yes, I proselytize on behalf of his work, but to me, reading Salter is a selfish, connoisseur's pleasure. I can pick up his books and know that a more or less absolute writerly integrity will confront me. I don't often read other writers and feel jealousy, and that's not exactly what I feel when I read Salter. But I feel a rightness from his composition—maybe more than from that of any other writer I know—combined with a self-conscious yet undeniably engaging sort of music. If you are willing to take the plunge with him, he will carry you sturdily through the books. I recommend the ones I've read (Light Years, A Sport and a Pastime; the harrowing and underrated Solo Faces; Last Night, his most recent short-story collection; the astonishingly good memoir Burning the Days, which I'm devouring now) about as highly as I could recommend any books.

I know they are not for everyone. An astute Amazon reviewer writes "Salter's novels are case studies of what I'd call male mythology." Absolutely, they are. For as long as I can remember, I've loved these kinds of books. I'm not necessarily what I'd call a man's man (never been great at sports, though I'm a halfway decent squash player!), but my tastes in certain areas definitely skew that way. I love steak and BBQ (I come from the Midwest), and I love books about men in conflict—with themselves, with each other, with their environment. Faulkner is probably my favorite novelist—you can't do much better when it comes to the tortured-manhood thing. I love Cormac McCarthy. I recently read Bernard Malamud's The Natural, James Dickey's Deliverance and Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men in quick succession. You get the point. Salter's book aren't the same, but in a way they are: It's that mythology thing, a sense that you have to tackle the big questions.

All That Is does that in a fascinating way. As other reviewers have noted, its main character is not heroic. (He's not the mountain climber of Solo Faces or even the sensual, almost Dean Moriarty–ish dynamo of A Sport and a Pastime.) In fact he's vain, even an outright asshole at times. But Salter sticks with him, doggedly. We sit in on every one of his triumphs and failures, and we make of it what we will. The book has no moral, but it is filled with tacit lessons. It's both uneventful and fantastically intense. It is classic Salter. I can't wait to read it again.

P.S. Don't miss this fantastic GQ profile.

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