James Salter's True Grit
Credit: David Levenson / Getty Images

The more I talked with Salter, the more I guessed his reluctance to relate choice anecdotes about his fascinating life is because he wants to be remembered as a writer, not a bon vivant. His concern is understandable. It wasn't until the publication of 'Dusk and Other Stories' in 1988 and 'Burning the Days' in 1997 that Salter's reputation as a writer superseded his reputation as a man's man. In 2012, he was awarded the 25th annual PEN/Malamud Award for his short stories.

Still, it's unclear if 'All That Is' will end Salter's gilded obscurity, even with all the sculpted sentences and precise set pieces. It tells the story of Philip Bowman, a Navy man turned book editor, and his love affairs from 1945 to the 1980s. I asked Salter if naming him Philip connected him to the Phillip of 'A Sport and a Pastime' – and Salter laughed. "No, just a failure of imagination." But there is a through line: Both are men who mistake lust for lasting love, a personal mistake Salter hints that he made as a young man in 'Burning the Days.'

Salter didn't take shortcuts – he recently spent time in rural Virginia researching Bowman's wife. He took the train from New York to Chicago to get the feel of a scene. "I didn't want to make that up," says Salter. "I wanted it to be real." It's a technique he's used before: Some of 'A Sport and a Pastime' is drawn from his postwar years in France as an American pilot with his pockets full of francs.

Detractors of Salter's masculine writing will find things to hate. There's a revenge fantasy involving Bowman, a double-­crossing girlfriend, her comely daughter, and a trip to Paris that will curl your nose hairs. At the end of the chapter, Bowman admits he regretted nothing, not the original affair and not his actions.

"There are two sides of that," says Salter. "He had his pockets turned out. And anyway, the second part of it was fortuitous. It wasn't a plan. . . . It wasn't Iago."

But Bowman enjoyed it. Most wronged men would have, too, but most writers wouldn't cop to it, especially in a character that – despite his protests – is Salter's likely stand-in. There's a benefit to being 88.

Later in the afternoon, the subject turned to honor – something beaten into Salter's head at West Point more than 60 years ago­­ – and I mentioned the infidelity of many of Salter's men. He waved me off.

"I think cheating is a ridiculous schoolboy name. That may be a question of disloyalty, irresponsibility, and cruelty maybe, but none of those as a matter of fact is about honor. Honor is something else. Honor is your word, your vow, your pledge, your known allegiances – your truthfulness. There is honorable behavior, which means decency, thoughtfulness, humanity."

To me, that sounded like an old-world dodge – cheating could be construed as a matter of your word, your vow, your pledge­­ – but Salter is who he is, raised in a pre-Depression New York City of ragmen and coal stoves. His worldview may have fallen out of favor, but the sentences remain just as sadly beautiful.

The Colorado light began to fade behind the mountains, and we went into his bedroom, where he keeps his desk. He showed me photos of his Hamptons office on his computer. I clicked the mouse on another photo: gleaming models of World War II–era fighter planes. Salter moved to click away.

"Those are just pictures of my grandson's planes. Nothing to do with me." I smiled and nodded, but I didn't believe him.