Full of Hell

Fatema Ahmed

  • Cassada by James Salter
    Harvill, 208 pp, £10.99, August 2003, ISBN 1 86046 925 6
  • Light Years by James Salter
    Vintage, 320 pp, £6.99, August 2003, ISBN 0 09 945022 4

In his memoir, Burning the Days (1997), James Salter tells a story about an encounter between William Faulkner and an officer from the local airbase in Greenville, Mississippi in the early 1950s. They talk of the excitement of flying, and Faulkner drunkenly reminisces about his days as a pilot in France during the First World War. He then offers to write a story about the Air Force in exchange for being allowed a ride in a jet. The officer puts this proposal to his base commander who barks back: ‘Who’s Faulkner?’ Another writer might have made more of the fact that Faulkner was lying (he was still training in Canada when the war ended), but Salter generously concludes that Faulkner had related his imaginary war exploits so often that he had come to believe in them. In choosing to emphasise instead the commander’s ignorance, Salter turns the story into a wry reflection on writerly fame. His own output (slight by Faulknerian standards) of six novels, one short-story collection and a memoir has earned him much more praise than celebrity: he is called a ‘writer’s writer’, which means that writers whose books sell better than his publicly deplore his comparative obscurity. James Wolcott has described him as ‘our most underrated underrated writer’.

Salter was born in 1925 and grew up in New York, the son of a property broker who was successful enough to live on the Upper East Side and send his son to an elite private school. He graduated from West Point, which his father had also attended, in 1945, too late for the war, and spent 12 years in the US Air Force, flying transport planes and bombers before in 1952 joining a fighter squadron in Korea where he flew more than a hundred missions. His first novel, The Hunters, was published in 1956; a year later he resigned his commission to concentrate on writing (he continued to fly with the National Guard at weekends and spent nearly a year as a reservist in France in 1961-62). He has also been a film-maker (first prize for a short film at the Venice Film Festival in 1962) and screenwriter: his credits include Downhill Racer (1969), starring Robert Redford as a champion skier. His novel about mountaineering, Solo Faces (1979), started life as a script for Redford.

As well as subsidising some unprofitable novels, the movie business brought Salter into contact with a more hedonistic world: he spent time in Rome and London as well as Los Angeles and, most important to him, Paris. He calls Europe his ‘education’. The second half of his memoir is full of famous names as Salter describes meeting, among many others, Fellini, William Styron, Polanski, Nureyev and Yoko Ono. Of less interest are the minor European aristocrats he finds so fascinating: a German countess, ‘a barbiturate ruin’, represents for him ‘the real crop of Europe’.

Salter was born James Horowitz, although he doesn’t mention this in Burning the Days. The surname he later adopted is the pen name he used while he was in the Air Force. He refers to his religion briefly: he remembers visiting his great-grandfather – ‘a fearsome old man in his eighties from the shtetls in Poland’ – and closes the subject with his decision at West Point to stop attending ‘Jewish chapel’ on Friday evenings and go to the Sunday service with everyone else instead. He doesn’t tell us the names of his parents or of either of his wives. He doesn’t bother to give the titles of his first two novels, or mention that The Hunters was made into a film starring Robert Mitchum (his silence on this is understandable: the film retains nothing of the novel apart from the names of some of the characters). Of his second novel, The Arm of Flesh, all he has to say is: ‘It was published. It disappeared without trace.’ Salter prepares us for these silences. He compares reading his memoir to looking through the windows of a house: ‘At some windows you may wish to stay longer, but alas. As with any house, all within cannot be seen.’

The chapters devoted to Salter’s years in the Air Force in Burning the Days are the most vividly realised, full of clear and thrilling descriptions of flying. This is his account of the merits of the American F-86s versus the Soviet MiGs in Korea:

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