James Salter's unreliable genius
Some of his short stories have conspicuous faults – not least in their portrayal of women – but the best show a unique, sad beauty
Friday 14 April 2017 08.05 BST
here is no complete life. There are only fragments.” These lines from James Salter’s 1975 novel Light Years express a belief, perhaps even a philosophy, which informs all his writing. It is one that would favour the short story, which prioritises the extraordinary moment above the changes over time found in novels. So does Salter’s prose, which is lyrical but extremely economical. Structurally, however, his instinct is towards the expansive: he likes to move through large stretches of time. This combination has resulted in a relatively small body of short stories (two collections, from 1988 and 2006) that is unlike the work of any other writer.
In American Express, Salter spends half the story summarising the legal careers of Frank and Alan, two young, talented New York lawyers. They dedicate themselves to a case nobody wants and it makes their name. They establish their own firm, with “new offices overlooking Bryant Park which from above seemed like a garden behind a dark chateau”. There were “young clients, opera tickets, dinners in apartments with divorced hostesses, surrendered apartments with books and big, tiled kitchens”. When Salter is in this summarising mode you might sometimes doubt his ability: he tells rather than shows, and seems to skate over the surface of things.
But in the second half, when the lawyers take a trip to Italy, the summarising ends and moments are left to speak for themselves. Leaves piled against table legs tell us it is autumn; the dissolution of Frank, who is sleeping with a schoolgirl, is indelibly portrayed when he descends from his hotel room looking “like a rich patient in some hospital”; Alan, enviously spectating on his immoral acts, watches a young man from a window: “He crossed the driveway and jumped onto a motorbike. The engine started, a faint blur.” This is the Salter the New York Times critic Anatole Broyard was talking about when he marvelled, in an otherwise negative review of Light Years: “It is almost unbelievable what he can do with a few pigeons.”
The conventional choice for a writer as sophisticated as Salter, who died in 2015, would be to embed the first half of American Express as one or more flashbacks within the second half, as a counterpoint to their disturbing collapse in Italy; at one point Frank’s father divides the world into “those going up and those coming down”, which could also be the story’s title. But the unusual structure of Salter’s version is no accident or fumble: it is how he tells stories.
In the first few pages of his 1997 memoir Burning the Days, he forewarns the reader: “I am writing offhandedly of a great span of time.” He proceeds to move compulsively back and forth through his life: a detail of a love affair in the late 40s reminds him of another from the 60s; packing his things at West Point pulls his thoughts to a time “long afterwards”, when he got his car stuck in a snowdrift. This will frustrate anyone wanting a traditional autobiography, but it captures the ramifying nature of remembrance brilliantly, and returns us to his contention that life is not something you can study as you choose, but is instead a heap of fragments to sort through.
One of the most extreme examples of Salter’s restless narration is a story called Arlington, which begins straightforwardly enough: “Newell had married a Czech girl and they were having trouble, they were drinking and fighting”. Newell is a soldier and his superior, Westerveldt, visits to try to broker peace. Westerveldt feels like the main character, although for a line or two Newell’s thoughts swim into the narrative.
When Westerveldt’s visit ends, Salter briefly describes an evening when Newell is away on duty and his wife goes out alone. An officer takes her home, and she later reports that she had been raped. This is followed by a thumbnail portrait of Westerveldt: the mortar scar he picked up in Pleiku, his love affair with a woman in Naples, and marriage to a divorcee from San Antonio, and his death from leukaemia at 58. Then we are back with Newell, a passenger in a car driving from the memorial service to Arlington cemetery. The rest of the story follows his perspective.
For all its erratic movement in time, Arlington works. Al Alvarez once wrote that Salter is “simply not interested in telling stories”. I don’t think that’s true at all; he just isn’t interested in telling them the way they are “supposed” to be told. Arlington absolutely is a story; it seems much longer than its seven pages, and it contains one of the best descriptions of a graveyard since Kipling’s The Gardener:
The gravestones in dense, unbroken lines curved alongside the hillsides and down toward the river, as far as he could see, all the same height with here and there a larger, grey stone like an officer, mounted, amid the ranks. In the fading light they seemed to be waiting, fateful, massed as if for some great assault.
Like Kipling, Salter wants to impart knowledge in his stories. Reading the former, you might learn how to build bridges, or what it feels like to be shot; Salter’s early novels contain many technical particulars of flight and air combat (he flew jets in Korea), and his short stories show he is the Kipling of sex. In Eyes of the Stars, he describes a woman who is “18 and more or less innocent, everything still ahead of her. If she took off her clothes you would never forget it”; in Give, the narrator tells us his wife is “31, the age when women are past foolishness though not unfeeling”. Charisma begins: “Men don’t have to have looks. It’s not that.”
These pronouncements, which are not meant to be ironic – his autobiography is full of this kind of thing – appeal in their certitude (“I believe there is such a thing as objective truth insofar as we are given to know it”, Salter told the Paris Reviewin 1993), but can also sound ridiculous, particularly the pronouncements on women’s bodies. In The Destruction of the Goetheanum, a young woman is described as having “a serving girl’s mouth, a girl from small towns”. The main character in Eyes of the Stars, who is in her 60s, has arms “like a cook’s”. An argument can be made that these judgments belong to characters, not Salter, but it is difficult to be certain. He isn’t above the cruelty or the snobbishness of either remark.
Yet Salter can temper the harshness to be found in his work with notable sensitivity. Dusk is a story – like so many in his work – about the end of love, or at least a love affair. It begins with Mrs Chandler, a middle-aged woman who has been left by her husband and is about to be spurned again, standing beside a neon sign that says “prime meats”. She is a woman who “lived a certain life”, Salter tells us, before gathering its fragments:
She knew how to give dinner parties, take care of dogs, enter restaurants. She had her way of answering invitations, of dressing, of being herself. Incomparable habits, you might call them. She was a woman who had read books, played golf, gone to weddings, whose legs were good, who had weathered storms, a fine woman whom no one now wanted.
That last clause feels more like an expression of Mrs Chandler’s own self-pity than external opinion. Returning home, her lover is waiting in the driveway. It is cosy inside, but the way Salter describes the gathering dusk – “Outside, the fields were disappearing” – suggests a kind of oblivion. Bill tells her he is back with his wife, then leaves. She imagines following him home and driving past his house: “The lights would be on. She would see someone through the windows.” As the story ends, she can hear geese outside and imagines one, shot and thrashing in the long grass, “bloody sounds coming from the holes in its beak. She went around and turned on lights. The rain was coming down, the sea was crashing, a comrade lay dead in the whirling darkness”.
Those extraordinary last lines read like a tribute to Salter’s favourite short story writer, Isaac Babel. Babel, Salter said, had “the three essentials of greatness: style, structure, and authority”, and in certain stories – Dusk, Twenty Minutes, Last Night, Foreign Shores – Salter has them too. The latter story, about a Dutch nanny who is dismissed by her employer after the discovery of sexually explicit letters, contains a passage that expresses Salter’s unique blend: striking and beautiful description, the sorrow of things ending, and the great sensuality and cruelty of life:
The fall was coming. Everything seemed to deny it. The days were still warm, the great, terminal sun poured down. The leaves, more luxuriant than ever, covered the trees. Behind the hedges, lawn mowers made a final racket. On the warm slate of the terrace, left behind, a grasshopper, a veteran in dark green and yellow, limped along. The birds had torn off one of his legs.