The Boston Phoenix
September 11 - 18, 1997

[Book Reviews]

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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 company.

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.

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