Paths of glory
From West Point to Hollywood, James Salter could always recognize a hero
by James Surowiecki
BURNING THE DAYS, by James Salter. Random House, 365 pages, $24.
At a time when the line between the book and the confessional is blurrier than
ever, James Salter's work is exemplary in its reticence. His sentences make one
feel everything even as they seem to say almost nothing. His best novels --
A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years -- are works of tremendous
emotion, books that demand to be read slowly, and yet what's most striking
about them is how much they refuse to rely on the comforts of interiority, how
many of the scenes that animate them are painted from without. Character
emerges through conversation, through action. It finds reflection in the
carefully drawn descriptions of heavy days on the beach, of loud parties, and
of the consoling emptiness of drives home in the early morning. Salter shows so
much, and tells so little, that when he does go inside a character's head, the
effect is resounding.
This kind of writing, this conjuring of overwhelming moods out of the smallest
details, always runs the risk of being labeled precious. Certainly Salter's
admirers have been anxious to excuse him from that charge. But while his prose
is probably too fine for the taste of some, it is not delicate so much
as it is clean. Lines do not leap off the page in a self-consciously poetic
manner, but rather take their strength from those before and after.
It seems fitting, then, that Salter has subtitled his new book, Burning the
Days, "Recollection" rather than "A Memoir," because although this is a
book about Salter's life, it is not exactly a book about him -- at least
not in the way that we expect memoirs to be about their authors. Even here,
working in a genre that more than any other would seem to excuse the shameless
excavation of the interior, Salter has chosen to give us the world as he found
it, the people he admired and loved, the places he made his for a while. It's
what he felt about all these things that tells us, in the end, what he felt
about himself. Burning the Days is suffused with a sense of profound
solitude and of the inescapability of loss, but it's always solitude in
Salter had a tremendous collection of friends, lovers, and experiences, and
one of the book's pleasures is taking in 70 years of them. A graduate of West
Point, Salter just missed flying fighters in World War II but then got his
chance in Korea, where he flew with distinction until war's end even as he was
finishing his first novel. He had a strange and rather rollicking career in the
movie industry as a screenwriter and director -- he made the film Three,
based on an Irwin Shaw story, and a series of documentaries -- even as he was
becoming a great novelist. He had what seem to have been a dizzying number of
adulterous love affairs, even as he married and raised a family. And he had a
great collection of friends, people whom -- as he describes them -- one could
only be happy to know and spend time with. Obviously, there was always the
work, but there was always also the life, and the first never seems to have
swallowed up the second.
If it never did, that's probably because Salter is a man on whom joy in the
presence of others is not lost. What comes through most strongly in Burning
the Days, in fact, is just how much strength Salter drew from those he
loved and admired. There are long and moving sections in the book about Irwin
Shaw, who shepherded Salter when he first arrived in Paris, and Robert Phelps,
who founded Grove Press and of whom Salter writes, "It was not for wisdom I was
drawn to him, rather for his presence, which confirmed all I sought to feel
about the world." But there are also shorter and equally powerful portraits of
others Salter knew: the sculptor Mark di Suvero, Ben Sonnenberg, Robert
Redford, and many others. The most striking portrait is of a relative unknown,
a man named Kelton Farris, a classmate of Salter's at West Point. "He was
without flamboyance or the kind of eagerness that repels," Salter writes.
Even now I sometimes enter a room thinking of him doing it, imperturbable,
assured, drawing people's interest, their admiration. . . .
Something priceless had been given him, the power to attract, to be trusted.
You could not imagine him dead -- whatever happened, he would get through. That
was written on him. It was the promise of nature herself.
Promise, you might say, is Salter's persistent theme throughout
Burning the Days -- promise's realization, and its necessary and
implacable decay. This is a book about expectation, about the measuring of
experience against always higher standards, about coming to know yourself by
coming to know what you want to be. And it is a book about erosion, about the
disappearance of those things that once seemed permanent. "It is beyond
conquering. You may taste it, even reign for an hour, but that is all," Salter
writes. "You may not own the beach or the girls on it, the haze of summer
afternoons, or the crashing, green sea, and the next wave of aspirants is
outside the door, their murmuring, their hunger." But for all that, this is a
book about worldliness, also, and about the real pleasures it offers, the
demands it makes. Salter does not flinch in the face of the nakedness of his
own desire. "I wanted glory," he writes of Light Years, and he offers a
stunning description of the hollow envy he felt when watching his former fellow
pilot Buzz Aldrin go to the moon.
In his preface, Salter writes: "I do not worship gods but I like to know they
are there. Frailty, human though it may be, interests me less." Certainly
Burning the Days is full of those Salter saw as godly, and of those
moments when he was able to see himself as such. But Salter gives himself too
little credit when he says that he is not interested in frailty, because it is
precisely his ability to understand frailty -- the frailty of desire and of
commitment, the frailty of beauty and the body -- that makes his evocations of
godliness so moving. Everything we are and everything we might be perpetually
roll against each other in Salter's work. He is our great writer of adulthood.
James Surowiecki is a regular contributor to Slate, Lingua
Franca, and the Motley Fool.