James Salter: the Writer’s Writer who betrayed all Writers (2)

I discussed how Salter achieved greatness in a previous post. This is about how he betrayed his gifts and fellow writers, and even literature, in his later years.

After The Hunters (1957) and the similarly-themed The Arm of Flesh (1961), Salter took up film writing, and then moved on to producing two carefully plot-less novels. The Hunters’ success was never replicated, but Salter came to convince himself that this had been his destiny all along: crafting pretty prose, striving for effect while describing the common place and the uninteresting.

His novels didn’t sell much, but he was very well reviewed by friends and acquaintances. He publicly derided his two air force novels, as not worthy of much attention. Many fellow novelists, I’m sure, were glad to see that the much-talented Salter had been reduced to writing up erotica (“A sport and a pastime,” a 1967 novel that was a personal favorite), and troubled marriages (“Light Years,” 1975).

In Light Years, the characters have literary-sounding names: Viri, Nedra, Franca. They conduct ponderous conversations about life, destiny and happiness. And they have literary-sounding jobs: architect, doctor, writer, psychologist.

There are no deputy-directors of public transportation for Newark, N.J., in Light Years, nor vicepresidents for life insurance claims. There are only people with deep thoughts who have simple job titles. Salter, the air force pilot, appears mildly confounded by just exactly how civilians go about their daily lives, but he never loses a chance to show his wonderful command of the English language, especially when such display is less needed. Take this paragraph:

 “They were in traffic, driving across town at five in the afternoon. The great mechanical river of which they were part moved slowly at the intersections and then more freely on the long transverse blocks. Nedra was doing her nails. At each red light, without a word, she handed him the bottle and painted one nail.”

This is written by a highly talented writer. The detail about Nedra doing her nails while slumping on the front seat, using her husband as bottle-holder when possible, is a brilliant way of showing her carefree, mildly irritating way of conducting herself. But notice how Salter wanted to be cute: wouldn’t the paragraph read much better like this?

 “They were in traffic, driving across town at five in the afternoon. The great mechanical river of which they were part moved slowly at the intersections and then more freely on the long transverse blocks. Nedra was doing her nails. At each red light, without a word, she handed him the bottle and painted one nail.”

Unnecessary addition of description is the late Salter’s trademark. It’s not really clear to me that Salter has anything newsworthy or relevant to say about traffic jams. The comparison with a river is cliched and lazy; the sentence is well-written, and flows very nicely: but the idea is, again, ponderous. It adds up to a surfeit of pointless verbiage.

Like The Hunters, Light Years has a simple story to tell: how Viri’s and Nedra’s marriage comes apart among recrimination and sleeping around, and how their children grow up to see it all. The story is just not as riveting or resounding as that of The Hunters. Failed marriages are much more humdrum than fighter-pilot careers during the Korean War, and many millions know as much about the subject as Salter, or even more.

The novel’s style is overkill; its most remarkable feature is the excessive deployment of precise, well-crafted language to describe bohemian burgeois types, a segment that was already mainstream in the 1970s and now accounts for a majority of the population in developed countries. Here, for example, Sailer describes Nedra as an aging, sick divorcee in her late forties being visited by one of her daughters. It’s great writing devoted to its own contemplation, looking to be unmoored from reality in order to become all the shinier:

“They had long lunches. They drove to the sea. They read Proust. In the house they went barelegged and without shoes, their limbs tan, their eyes the same gray, their lips smooth and pale. The calm days, companionship, the sun leached all care for them, left them content. One passed them in the morning. They were in the garden, a beautiful woman watering flowers, her daughter standing near her holding along her forearm and stroking slowly a long white cat. Or the house when they were gone: the windows silent, brief bathing suits spread on the woodbox, the robins with their dark heads and weathered bodies hurrying across the lawn.”

It’s a sad reflection on Salter’s talent that Light Years reads like a particularly uneventful, slow-moving episode of the 1960s-themed TV show Mad Men, with much of the wit cut out in the final edit.

In 1979, Salter published Solo Faces, a bit of a return to form, a novel about mountain climbing that has an actual plot. It was too late to turn his fortunes around and take him out of the “writer’s writer” box, though.

All the same, it’s a sign that, in the end, Salter understood. He had this to say, in the 1997 preface to my edition of The Hunters (the Yalu is a large river in Korea):

hunters3

 

 

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About David Roman

Communicator. I tweet @dromanber.
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