A Guide to James Salter’s Best Books

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"I believe there’s a right way to live and to die," James Salter told the Paris Review in 1992. "The people who can do that are interesting to me.… I think real devotion is heroic." Salter, who died on June 19 at the age of 90, lived and died as one of the most original, devoted writers in America; although he never became a household name, he influenced countless writers who did.

Salter, born James Horowitz in New Jersey, attended West Point during the Second World War, and later served as a pilot during the Korean War, flying dozens of missions in an F-86 Sabre. He quit the Air Force in 1957 to concentrate on writing both fiction and screenplays — he gained notice for his 1967 novel A Sport and a Pastime, and the 1969 film Downhill Racer, starring Robert Redford and Gene Hackman, which he wrote.

He didn't like Hollywood, though, and dedicated most of his later life to novels, short stories, and travel writing. His last novel, All That Is, was published two years ago to critical acclaim. Salter never seemed completely confident in his own career, but he never stopped writing, even during his life's most trying moments. As he once said, "Hope but not enthusiasm is the proper state for the writer." For those unfamiliar with Salter's impressive career, these five books are a good place to start.

The Hunters
Salter relied on his experience in the Air Force for his first novel, the story of a self-doubting fighter pilot in the Korean War who becomes rivals with a young, arrogant member of his unit. Many consider Salter's debut book the best Korean War novel ever written; it's a tough read that delves into the dark and complicated psychology of men at war. Published in 1956 and revised by the author in 1997, Salter's novel was adapted into a 1958 film starring Robert Mitchum and Robert Wagner.

A Sport and a Pastime
"One should not believe too strongly in a life which can easily vanish," Salter wrote in his controversial 1967 novel about a love affair between a young French woman and an American college dropout. At the time, readers were taken aback by Salter's frank and explicit sex scenes, some of which detail the narrator’s fantasies, but the novel remains a classic here and in Europe. It’s a fever dream of a novel, as sexy as it is disquieting. 

Light Years
Many consider Salter's dark, beautifully painful 1975 book to be his magnum opus. The novel follows Viri and Nedra, a well-off American couple whose marriage slowly falls apart beyond repair, leaving them to realize that they never really were the exceptional people they imagined themselves to be. "There is no complete life," Salter writes. "There are only fragments. We are born to have nothing, to have it pour through our hands."


Burning the Days: Recollection
Less an autobiography than a memoir in fragments, Salter's 1997 book covers the themes he explored in his fiction: flight, the Air Force, his beloved Paris and New York. He also recounts his short career in Hollywood, which left him disillusioned, and his love of writing fiction, which formed for him a kind of love affair. It's a book of regret and triumph, and the closest look at Salter that readers are likely to get.

All That Is
Salter's final novel, published in 2013, was his first in over 30 years. The story of a World War II veteran who becomes an editor in New York, the book covers the themes of marriage, betrayal, sex, and doubt that Salter was known for throughout his whole career. It's perhaps Salter’s saddest book, and it contains the words that could serve as his statement of purpose: "There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real."