The first James Salter story that got me was “Twenty Minutes.” I don’t know how to describe its effect for those who haven’t read it except to say that it works on the reader much like Salter himself wrote, “slowly, exactingly and, by almost every critic’s estimation, beautifully,” as today’s Times obituary put it.
The story is about a divorced woman who gets thrown from her horse. It is set in Carbondale, Colorado, a small town 30 miles downvalley from Aspen, “downvalley” and “upvalley” being the directions that matter most in the land of 14,000-foot peaks.
Salter, who died yesterday in Sag Harbor at the age of 90, spent much of his time in Aspen, swishing around in suspendered snowpants, and so, Eastern upbringing and West Point education aside, he understood those parts, understood the meaning of wilderness and life lived in proximity to it.
“This happened near Carbondale to a woman named Jane Vare,” it starts. “I met her once at a party. She was sitting on a couch with her arms stretched out on either side and a drink in one hand. We talked about dogs.”
Simple enough. But then the sentences, staccato and forthright, crystalize with magical economy, and you start to see that something more is going on, a layered watercolor is being painted.
“Tack on the kitchen table, mud on the wideboard floor. In she strode like a young groom in a worn jacket and boots.” Does she have a past? “Her father had lived in Ireland where they rode into the dining room on Sunday morning and the host died fallen on the bed in full attire. Her own life had become like that. Money and dents in the side of her nearly new Swedish car.”
Where exactly are we? “Around Carbondale the river drops down and widens. There’s a spidery trestle bridge, many times repainted, and they used to mine coal.”
I was thirteen when I moved to Carbondale, when I would go running where the river drops down and widens, but I’m not even sure that’s why Salter’s descriptions floor me: “It was late in the afternoon and a shower had passed. The light was silvery and strange. Cars emerging from the rain drove with their headlights on and the windshield wipers going. The yellow road machinery parked along the shoulder seemed unnaturally bright.”
Jane Vare is on a ridge below Sopris, a free-standing peak so exquisite the artist Clifford Ross spent a decade photographing it, when her horse, Fiume, “big, well formed, but not very smart,” gives way. “She went over his head and as if in slow motion he came after. He was upside down—she lay there watching him float toward her. He landed on her open lap.”
With twenty minutes, Jane figures, left to live, her life appears before her not in a flash but a montage of clips: the night her horse Privet was put down; the tan adobe just west, with “the peeled log ceilings of the Southwest, Navajo rugs, and fireplaces in every room,” and the near encounter with the man she met there; the day her husband, driving along an unpaved road, announced he had ended an affair she did not know about. “Some failed, some divorced, some got shot in trailers like Doug Portis who had the excavation business and was seeing the policeman’s wife. Some like her husband moved to Santa Barbara and became the extra man at dinner parties.”
Having never transcended the category of writer’s writer (Richard Ford: “Sentence for sentence, Salter is the master”), James Salter may be the most under-celebrated American prose stylist of the twentieth century. He is likely to be remembered most for two books, A Sport and a Pastime, his novel about sex, and Light Years,his novel about marriage. He has already been described as one of the finest chroniclers of jet fighting (The Hunters) and mountain climbing (Solo Faces). But it is his first collection of short stories, Dusk and Other Stories, that I will never be able to put down, that made me need to know: Who is this?
I found something of an answer in a 1992 interview in The Paris Review. “Your work seems unique in the way it brings together a set of apparently masculine concerns, ordeals, initiations, with an exquisite prose style,” Edward Hirsch says. “Is that how you see it?”
Salter: “I’ve made an effort to nurture the feminine in myself. I don’t mean overtly, but in terms of response to things. Perhaps that’s what we’re talking about. I am happy with my gender, but pure masculinity, which I have been exposed to a lot in life, is tedious and inadequate. It’s great to listen to men talk about sports or fights or war or even hunting sometimes, but the presence of the other, the presence of art and beauty, which crude masculinity seems to discount, is essential. Real civilization and real manhood seem to me to include those.”