James Salter’s True Grit

Mj 618_348_james salters true grit
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James Salter has been a fighter pilot, a rogue, and a climber. He counts Robert Redford as a friend. He shot down a Russian MiG – Robert Mitchum starred in a movie based loosely on his Korean War exploits. During his Hollywood days, he had business cards that read “Mr. James Salter regrets he is far too occupied to: Write a Movie Script. Polish a Movie Script. Read a Movie Script. Take a Meeting.” Oh, yeah, he has also written some of the best American novels of the past half-century.

Still, if you use sales as a barometer, Salter has worn the title of the Great American Unknown Novelist for half his life, alternately embracing and chafing at the title. (His best-known project, by far, was his script for Redford’s ‘Downhill Racer.’) His past makes the epigraph at the beginning of Salter’s ‘All That Is,’ his first novel in 34 years, poignant: “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.”

We were sitting at the dinner table in his Aspen cabin when I asked him what he meant. Salter just smiled and gazed at me with the icy blue eyes that used to drop skirts in postwar France. He shrugged his shoulders and threw his hands up.

“It was taking a long time to write, and I was using that to fortify, to inspire myself. I knew if I got it written down maybe it would last a little while.” He let out a sigh and continued in a voice that suggested he was trying to convince himself of something. “Glory has passed me by. I don’t think I have any problems with that now.”

Salter is one of the smartest men I’ve ever met and the most enigmatic. I spent two days with him, and it was alternately inspiring, entertaining, and frustrating. Most novelists have a 10-minute NPR spiel about their book, but that’s not Salter. He is the poker player as writer. No overshares here. His 1997 memoir, ‘Burning the Days,’ took more than a decade to write and clocked in at 365 pages – but it quickly dispatches with the seemingly major decision to change his name from James Horowitz to James Salter. The tragic early death of his daughter in an accident is addressed in one sad, eloquent paragraph. Questions about his early life – West Point, fighter pilot in Korea, and two novels on flying – are parried away. “Flying is not work, and writing is work,” Salter told me. “They’re not connected.”

It took some prodding to pry a detail or two out of him, namely the time he crashed his training plane into a Massachusetts house on V-E Day, in 1945. It wasn’t entirely his fault – he was given the wrong wind speed and direction – but as he was running low on fuel, he had to think of what he needed to do: a man at the crossroads, a theme that pops up endlessly in his books.

“All of a sudden you’re in the trees, and the landing lights banged into a tree and the wing came off, and I hit. How much of that was fear? I don’t know if the word is fear. It’s anguish. It lasted a long time.”

Later, he admonished me, “Do not call it brave.”

Salter’s career survived, and he eventually flew fighter missions over Korea. But he wanted more and resigned from the Air Force, trading the endless sky on a cross-country flight for lonely days of writing.

“I told my wing commander, and he said, ‘You idiot.’ I thought, ‘My God, what have I done?’ ”

But he hadn’t been an idiot. He merely traded one great life for another. He wrote two novels about flying that he has since disavowed but that are still passed down from pilot to pilot. A dec­ade after leaving the Air Force, Salter published ‘A Sport and a Pastime,’ a hypersexualized account of American Phillip Dean’s affair with a French peasant girl. If the depiction of Anne-Marie, with its multiple mentions of her bad breath, wouldn’t win a feminist’s endorsement, the crystalline and precise prose is still talked about by fiction writers in 1,001 MFA programs. “Of living novelists, none has produced a book I admire more than James Salter’s ‘A Sport and a Pastime,’ ” announced Reynolds Price in the ‘New York Times.’

Still, the book didn’t sell much. There were kids to support, four with his first wife, Ann, a fifth later with his second wife, Kay. He dabbled in Hollywood and made award-­winning documentaries to pay the bills. He published ‘Light Years, a novel detailing the crack-up of a seemingly perfect Westchester marriage. Both ‘A Sport and a Pastime’ and ‘Light Years’ have become more revered with time, but there were two scathing reviews of ‘Light Years’ that Salter believed killed the book. (The damage remains above his desk, where Salter has written to himself a few lines of personal encouragement. He wouldn’t let me quote them, but they were an endearing glimpse at the fragility of a writer, even one who has faced down Russian cannon fire at 30,000 feet.)

Over the next two decades, Salter continued to write fiction, but also dabbled in journalism, writing travel pieces about skiing the Alps and other exotic locations, while cranking out stray profiles for ‘People’ (a detail not mentioned in his bio). He even directed a film, ‘Three,’ a Salteresque tale of a love triangle starring a young Sam Waterston and Charlotte Rampling. He was past 50 when he took up mountain climbing. One time, he found himself climbing Eldorado Canyon, in Colorado, with a cocky young man who pushed him beyond his skill level.

“I thought this guy was trying to humiliate me,” recalls Salter. “We had to go around a little corner, and I can remember looking down over jagged rocks for about 150 to 200 feet, and it’s like leaning out of a 20-story window, but you’re completely exposed.” Salter’s voice trailed off. “I remembered it, so it must’ve meant something.”

It did. He described the fear in an interview about ‘Solo Faces,’ an unfilmed script he wrote for Redford that he turned into a novel, which revolves around a climber: “That you come to these places and say to yourself, I can’t do this, I know I can’t do this, I’m certain I can’t do it, but I have to do it, I know I have to. You would give anything to be somewhere besides there, but there’s no use thinking about it. You have to go on. In the end, it uplifts you somehow. . . .”

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.

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