“Importance isn’t important,” Kingsley Amis once decreed. “Good writing is.”
A sentiment that doesn’t appear to have offered a lime slice of solace to the late novelist, screenwriter, former fighter pilot, and one-time director James Salter, who died last week at the preposterous age of 90—preposterous because his prose and persona possessed a silvery preserve that seemed to arrest him in time, suspending the rules the rest of us mortals erode by. In his prime he was Don Draper handsome, as Farran Smith Nehme pointed out on Twitter, he wrote with a worldly pointillism about skiing, mountain climbing, flying, seduction, epicurean dining, the accruing seasons of marriage, the qualities of light (as a word painter of light John Cheever was his only rival), and the internal exile of solitude that made so many of his contemporaries look like muckers and den hermits. It was a Hemingwayesque mode without the Popeye spinach of bluster and automythology that turned the later Hemingway into a tragic, patriarchal gasbag. Salter had all the makings of literary stardom, complete with Hollywood connections (he did the brilliant, elliptical script for Michael Ritchie’s Downhill Racer, with Robert Redford hitting the slopes), and had to settle for “writer’s writer” cult status, which is fine enough for Paris Review numinosity but won't feed the chickens or reserve a space in the pantheon.
“You can’t be admitted to the ranks of writers of importance unless you have sales,” as Salter was quoted lamenting in the New York Times obituary, and even sales offer no guaranteed price of admission. John O’Hara’s literary importance seemed to diminish in his lifetime as he belted out bestselling blockbusters that had all of the bloat and excess furnishing that his earlier breakthrough work acidly avoided. (Which posterity has handled by ditching most of the later novels overboard, recognizing Appointment in Samarra, BUtterfield 8, Pal Joey, and his best short stories as the true keepers.) And Norman Mailer, who had a handful of bestsellers over the span of his locomotive career, regretted near the end of his life that he had not done the masterpiece(s) he had hoped for, detoured by too much journalism, tight-deadline alimony-money books, and personal turmoil, though he kept working up to the end, as did Salter, whose All That Is came out in 2013, his first novel since the Carter administration, the late-late work that many of his admirers thought we would never see. It’s a novel I haven’t quite gotten the hang of, its spell more elusive and jagged than its predecessors (those sensuous canticles A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years, not to mention his memoir Burning the Days), but one I intend to go back to. Salter had an almost French genius for capturing time present and time past in the leaf flicker of a single sentence, and All That Is has a more freighted sense of time and its characters a more predatory appetite—a hint of fangs beneath the well-bred manners.
Perhaps no writer escapes without regrets or, worse, resentments, because resentments are more global, blaming the world for not giving you what you wanted and deserved, and they gnaw more at the spleen than the regrets we are all nursing with a sigh. Esteemed by fellow writers, honored with critical praise and awards, the beneficiary of a third act burst of attention, Salter had it better than most—nearly everything good and profitable for the career of Richard (Revolutionary Road) Yates happened after he was too dead to appreciate it; posthumous acclaim is the ultimate example of too-little-too-late—and I suspect theTimes obit painted a more wan impression than the actual truth. I never met the man so I can’t attest to that, but he was a man who lived by a code that he never deviated from in print, and print is where we will continue to know him best. Rest in peace, James Salter.