Saturday, June 20, 2015

Samurai swords: Goodbye, James Salter

Here are two—for me, unshakable—scenes from one of my favorite books, James Salter's memoir, Burning the Days. The first is about Truman Capote, in the immediate aftermath of In Cold Blood. (The unpublished book Salter refers to in the final paragraph is A Sport and a Pastime.) The second is about the Apollo 11 launch. (Like Salter, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong had been fighter pilots in the Korean War.) In each, the narrator stands apart from a very different kind of greatness. His reactions to each are very different too, and he records them with absolute honesty.

That November he gave a great party, a masked ball, at the Plaza. The guests, in the hundreds—the list of those invited had been kept secret—were a certain cream. Many came from prearranged dinners all over town, movie stars, artists, songwriters, tycoons, Princess Pignatelli, John O’Hara, Averell Harriman, political insiders, queens of fashion, women in white gowns, men in dinner jackets. They were going up the carpeted steps of the hotel entrance, great languid flags overhead, limousines in dark ranks. The path of glory: satin gowns raised a few inches as they went up on silvery heels. Stunning women, bare shoulders, the rapt crowd.

They woke, these people, above a park immense and calm in the morning, the reservoir a mirror, the buildings to the east in shadow with the sun behind them, the rivers shining, the bridges lightly sketched. There were no curtains. This high up there was no one to see in.

In the small convertible I had bought in Rome I was driving past that night and for a few moments saw it. I knew neither the guests nor the host. I had the elation of not being part of it, of scorning it, on my way like a fox to another sort of life. There came to me something a nurse had once told me, that at Pearl Harbor casualties had been brought in wearing tuxedos, it was Saturday night on Oahu, it was Sunday. The dancing at the clubs was over. The dawn of the war.

In the darkness the soft hum of the tires on the empty road was like a cooling hand. The city had sunk to mere glowing sky. My own book was not yet published, but would be. It had no dimensions, no limit to the heights in might reach. It was deep in my pocket, like an inheritance.


The days of flying that have borne them to this, the countless, repetitive days. The astonishing thing is that we are empowered to bequeath history, to create the unalterable: paintings, elections, crimes. In fact they are impossible to prevent. One of the most memorable acts of all time is about to occur. Two minutes.

I had an Italian mistress, O very fine, who would fly places to meet me. She was slender, with a body brown from Rome's beaches and a narrow pale band, as if bleached, encircling her hips, the white reserve. She wore a brown leather jacket and had black hair, cut short. I had a luxurious corduroy suit, soft as velvet, from Palazzi on Via Borgognona. She had bought it for me as a gift. She was the antidote to, among many things, the sickening hours surrounding the launch and intolerable days after. I had taught her a catechism, or rather together we had composed one, which she could recite in perfect English, the flagrant words sinless in her mouth, the innocent questions and profane responses, and the low, inviting voice in which they were uttered. One minute.

We were silent that night with the television still on, light shifting on the walls in the darkened room. I was watching, transfixed by it, as well as by the cool, unhurried act we were engaged in. As a boy I had imagined grown men achieving scenes such as this. Tremendous deliberation. Reverent movement, oblivious, assured. She is writhing, like a dying snake, like a woman in bedlam. Everything and nothing, and meanwhile the invincible rocket, devouring miles, flying lead-heavy through actual minutes and men's dreams.

I have never forgotten that night or its anguish. Pleasure and inconsequence on one hand, immeasurable deeds on the other. I lay awake for a long time thinking of what I had become.

There's a lot of talk in the Times obit, foreshadowed in a 2013 New Yorker piece, of James Salter's reputation. I respect that James Salter himself obsessed over this topic, as the passages above indicate. But speaking as a reader and a fan—I would've said, before hearing last night's sad news, that he was my favorite living writer—his fame and stature are beside the point. To me, his books—particularly Solo Faces, A Sport and a Pastime, Burning the Days, All That Is, Last Night and Light Years (just typing that title, I shudder with reverence, and with the kind of reader trauma one associates with a book one finds particularly devastating)—are like samurai swords, immaculately crafted and absolutely deadly.

I know of no other writer that goes there, so to speak, like Salter does, dares to get inside vanity and aging and sex and literature and disease and achievement and failure and dignity and pettiness and malaise and glory the way he does. His books feel to me like honest catalogs, cross-sections of what life can throw at you, for better and for worse. Truth administered with an unapologetic, though not unsympathetic, "That's just the way it is." They embody both a tenderness and a coldness, luminous nostalgia and blunt scorn. They slice you up while making you swoon with their music. Reviewing them in my mind, I feel like I'm tracing the outlines of scars I've come to consider integral to my present self. Like the works of Faulkner, my other favorite, they stick around. In my private estimation, James Salter was plenty famous—and is undoubtedly immortal.


*Also from the Times, a valuable collection of Salter links. That Paris Review interview is indeed something special.

No comments: