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.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Doing better: RVIVR's The Beauty Between

This coming week brings two NYC visits from Olympia's RVIVR, resulting in three shows: a free NYU gig on Tuesday, 4/9 and a pair on Saturday, 4/13—daytime at Saint Vitus and nighttime at Union Pool. Here, via TONY, is my preview of the shows.

Every year, there are a few records that attain a certain kind of escape velocity—a speed, momentum, prominence—which propels them out of the mundane realm of Records I'm Writing About into the realm of Records I Love. (Or put another way, it's Records I'm Listening To For/At Work vs. Records I Bother To Bring Home, Put On My IPod, etc.) I've learned to pay close attention to these transitions, in part because it makes year-end-list writing a whole lot easier. Ideally, my top 10 for a given year consists entirely of records like this—records that have, in a sense, chosen me, rather than the other way around. There are only a small handful of 2013 releases in the running so far, among them Voivod's Target Earth, Suffocation's Pinnacle of Bedlam and the new RVIVR record, The Beauty Between. I don't really think bands deserve pats on the back for cultivating specific kinds of nostalgia, for zeroing in on a given well-established sound, but in this case, I'm not sure that's what RVIVR is doing. I can only speak for myself, how their music strikes my ears, and when I hear them, I think of a certain strain of melodic punk that flourished right around 1994, i.e., the year where my sporadic interest in that style very likely peaked. I cited both Avail and Face to Face in the aforelinked preview, but to get really specific, I'm really talking about songs like this one:

RVIVR isn't necessarily going after the same thing, but I hear something similar in their music—a sense of conviction, of determination to, in some cosmic sense, do better, improving the self and in the process, improving your community. More so than Avail, RVIVR is very much a political band, cultivating a queer-friendly, anti-macho environment at their shows and speaking out against sectors of the punk scene where such inclusiveness isn't thriving. (Learn more via this interview with RVIVR coleader Matt Canino.) But like all the truly great political bands—Fugazi is foremost in my mind—RVIVR finds a way to say what they need to say while keeping it all about the music. Loving a band's message, in other words, doesn't guarantee that you'll love their songs. RVIVR knows that hooks, passion and smart, witty writing—the ingredients in any effective anthem—are just as important.

The Beauty Between is filled with such anthems, to a near-unbelievable extent. Often I accept an album as generally "good," when what I really mean is that I like three or four tracks on it very much. TBB is a totally different case. The entire thing feels sturdy, engaged; you never get the sense that RVIVR are taking their collective eye off the ball. There's just such a feeling of a band really getting it right, for itself and for its supporters, of positive, focused effort. For me, TBB epitomizes the kind of punk that's all about trying—and by that I mean thinking and feeling and doing and working to the best of one's ability. The band's dual-singer-guitarist set-up perfectly encapsulates that. As I say in the TONY piece, there's a sense throughout that Canino and Erica Freas are engaged in a friendly kind of duel—a competition to see who can throw down with the most passion, who can sing out in the rawest and most cathartic way. But, since it's music and not sport, everyone wins.

I'm tempted to recommend a few favorites ("LMD," "Wrong Way/One Way," "Ocean Song" and the track that first sucked me in, "Spider Song"), but to me, this record is a single piece. It doesn't give you the emotional space to want to skip tracks. To my ears, it's a near-perfect example of its style. If you're anything like me, you'll hear it as both familiar and highly unusual—i.e., you'll recognize its pedigree immediately, but you'll have a tougher time processing how it could sound so solid, so convincing, so natural. I cannot wait to hear these songs live.