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:
They had cannon – the maw of a MiG seemed swollen and menacing. We had machine guns, which were almost feminine in comparison . . . the cannon shells were as big around as a drinking glass and the damage they could do was severe. Machine-gun bullets, on the other hand, were the size of a finger or wine cork. It was the sledgehammer versus the hose. The hose was more flexible and could be adjusted quickly. The slower-firing cannon could not; you could almost say, Oh God, between the heavy, glowing shots.
Salter conveys very well the atmosphere within the enclosed order of a fighter squadron, where the true hierarchy is based on how well you can fly. The greatest honours were reserved for aces, pilots who had shot down five or more enemy airplanes: ‘The fifth was more than just another; it was beatification, the step across the gulf.’ There were 39 American aces in the Korean War: Salter wasn’t one of them. He ended his career with one enemy plane destroyed, one damaged, and looks back with enormous regret: ‘Later I felt I had not done enough, had been too unreliant, too unskilled. I had not done what I set out to do and might have done.’
This theme is taken up in The Hunters, the story of Cleve Connell, a captain with an exemplary record who joins a fighter squadron in Korea. Great things are expected of him but he fails to make an impression in the only way that matters. Worse still, an unscrupulous new young officer in his own flight, Pell, becomes an ace. When Connell is lost in action, Pell acts as his obituarist to a reporter, earning yet more press attention for himself.
Fame is a recurring preoccupation in Salter’s work. At West Point, his reaction on learning that his roommate’s brother has been killed on a mission is ‘a secret thrill and envy’ at the thought of the dead man’s memory living on among those he has left behind. More than twenty years later, he has a similar response to the deaths of Ed White and Virgil Grissom (both men he had flown with) in the first manned Apollo mission in 1967: ‘They were already visible in that great photograph of our time, the one called celebrity.’ Coming from a writer who is so reticent in other respects, these confessions of envy and inadequacy are astonishingly candid. He had also flown with Buzz Aldrin, one of the ‘three white-clad men who were preparing my annihilation’. During the first moon landing, Salter was in a New York hotel room having sex with his Italian mistress; the television was on in the background.
She is writhing, like a dying snake, like a woman in bedlam. Everything and nothing, and meanwhile the invincible rocket, devouring miles, flying lead-heavy through actual minutes and men’s dreams.
I have never forgotten that night or its anguish. Pleasure and inconsequence on one hand, immeasurable deeds on the other. I lay awake for a long time thinking of what I had become.
Salter’s yearning for literary recognition is accompanied by a sometimes uncritical reverence for his literary heroes: ‘One thing about Faulkner I like, apart from the simplicity, on the whole, of his life, was that he wrote on the bedroom walls. That seems to me the true mark of a writer. It is like a pianist practising in the middle of the night when the whole household is asleep or trying to sleep.’ Salter says nothing of his own writing habits, or of his recent revisiting of past work. He revised The Hunters before agreeing to its reissue in 1997, and has refused all offers to reprint his second novel. Instead, nearly forty years after its first publication, he has rewritten it – with the same plot and characters and whole stretches of the same dialogue – under a new title: Cassada. Whereas The Arm of Flesh is narrated by each of the characters taking over from one another in rapid succession, Cassada is told in the third person.
When serving as an operations officer in Germany, Salter had been asked who in his squadron was most likely to become an ace. He picked out a Puerto Rican officer called Cortada, whom he describes as ‘supremely confident. Not everyone shared his opinion of his ability – his flight commander was certain he would kill himself.’ The flight commander turned out to be right. At the end of Burning the Days, George Cortada’s name is on the list of those who ‘Did Not Make the Voyage’.
In the novel Robert Cassada, a Puerto Rican second lieutenant straight out of flying school, joins the 44th Air Squadron in Germany in the mid-1950s. Many of the senior officers have served in Korea, including Major Dunning, the abrasive squadron commander: ‘He liked second lieutenants who reminded him of himself when he was one. Roaring. Full of hell.’ He immediately writes off Cassada’s hell-raising potential when the new arrival refuses his offer of coffee: ‘I never heard of a fighter pilot who wouldn’t drink coffee. What is it, part of your religion or something?’ Cassada’s response – ‘I seem to be sensitive to the caffeine’ – is not reassuring. Cassada approaches everything he does with a puppyish enthusiasm which separates him from the laconic figures he admires. ‘The squadron was like a large family with a history he was not really part of, and he felt like a foster child in the house of a stern father.’
Most of the day-to-day life of the squadron – the organisation and composition of training flights – is the responsibility of Captain Isbell, the operations officer. Dunning prefers his more junior officers to take after him, but has a firm regard for his second-in-command, who is ‘a different sort, cool on the outside, cooler within with but one flaw: he was an idealist.’ One aspect of his idealism is to take a special interest in Cassada, an interest heavily disapproved of by Captain Wickenden, Cassada’s flight leader, a tetchy figure who is convinced that the new man is bad news: ‘He has the mark of death on him.’ There is a ‘hierarchy of knowing’, Wickenden tells Isbell, and Cassada ‘won’t know where he is in it. He won’t ever know.’ He means that Cassada will never recognise how mediocre a pilot he is, and that the more he tries to impress, the more dangerous he will become.
Isbell takes pity on Cassada, and chooses him as his companion for a gunnery competition in North Africa. On the way back, Isbell takes a chance on the weather at Marseille and insists on flying back to Germany, knowing deep down that he is performing ‘the act that was indefensible, that proved nothing’. As the weather gets worse and Isbell’s radio gives out, Cassada takes over the lead, but despite several attempts fails to make the approach at Giebelstadt. The tense account of their return flight through the bad weather is interwoven with a chronological sequence of scenes of squadron life and Cassada’s lack of progress within it. At last, when Cassada runs out of fuel, he chooses to go on looking for Isbell instead of bailing out, and he crashes. Isbell bails out, and soon recovers. Cassada’s self-sacrifice goes unnoticed: competence is what counts.
Now that Isbell is viewed from the outside he is both more flawed – he sounds more mistakenly sure of himself – and more likeable than in The Arm of Flesh: ‘Isbell’s task was biblical. It was the task of Moses – he would take them to within sight of what was promised, but no further. To the friezes of heaven, which nobody knew was there.’ This may sound portentous, but compare it with the first-person original: ‘Perhaps I felt like Moses. I could take them to within sight of what was promised . . .’
The only women in the novel are Air Force wives or German girls the men try to pick up in bars. Isbell’s unhappy wife does not love him, and Dunning’s is too restless to measure out her life in bridge hands: ‘She should have been born a man, she often felt, been one of them instead of talking all the time about how terrible the maids were and why they didn’t shave under their arms. She should have had hard legs to swagger on and slim hips.’
There is little excitement and less danger to wish for in the leisurely, civilian world of Light Years (1975). The Hunters and The Arm of Flesh/Cassada are set in the world of ‘immeasurable deeds’: Light Years and its predecessor, A Sport and a Pastime (a drop-out from Yale has an affair with a French girl in the provinces), belong to the realm of pleasure and inconsequence. Salter attributes the inspiration for Light Years to Jean Renoir’s remark: ‘The only things that are important in life are those you remember.’ It is tempting to compare the novel’s catalogue of meals with the final chapter of Burning the Days, which is called ‘Dîners en ville’: ‘It is the evenings one remembers, the end of the day, dinners in the 50s, dinners downtown.’ Salter then takes us briskly through memories of dinners with his editor, dinners on Park Avenue and dinners in Europe.
Light Years describes the marriage of Nedra and Viri Berland. It begins in upstate New York in 1958 with the household (the couple have two young daughters) in turmoil over the disappearance of the family’s pet pony, Ursula. The pony has not strayed far, so we quickly move on to a description of Nedra’s preparations for a dinner party. She is a 28-year-old domestic goddess: ‘Her real concern is the heart of existence: meals, bed linen, clothing.’ Her husband, Viri (short for Vladimir), is an architect who dreams of greatness. ‘He wanted one thing, the possibility of one thing: to be famous. He wanted to be central to the human family, what else is there to long for, to hope?’ They sit down to the first meal of the novel: ‘Smoked brook trout, mutton, an endive salad, a Margaux open on the sideboard.’
Soon it becomes clear that the Berlands’ perfect, food-filled life is not, after all, perfect. Both of them are having affairs; each probably knows about the other’s infidelity. The years pass with many more meals consumed and weekends spent in the country. There are echoes of April Wheeler from Revolutionary Road in Nedra’s longing for Europe: ‘“I need the kind of life you can live there,” she said, "free of inhibitions.”’ Unlike the Wheelers, Nedra and Viri go on a pleasant trip to England, at the end of which Nedra says: ‘I don’t want to go back to our old life.’ Then she asks: ‘Would you like some more wine?’
After their divorce, Nedra, now 41, leaves their beautiful home. She spends more time in Europe, returns to America determined to become an actress, fails and has an affair with an actor instead. Later, she dies quickly and beautifully ‘as if leaving a concert during a passage she loved’. Meanwhile Viri drifts along, until suddenly he sells the house and leaves for Rome. Here he is pounced on by a 33-year-old Italian secretary who pursues him into marriage. She knows that he does not really love her, but vows to wear him down: ‘Until then . . . I will be your Arab girl, I will serve you naked, yes, I will hold food between my teeth for you.’
Irwin Shaw, Salter’s ‘unknowing Virgil’, came to a revealing judgment of his protégé’s writing. ‘The difficulty, he had told me at one point, was that I was a lyric writer and he a narrative writer,’ Salter says. ‘“Lyric” seemed a word he was uncomfortable with. It seemed to mean something like callow.’ ‘Callow’ isn’t really the right word, but Salter’s prose can often be unclear: ‘Long sleepers are usually nonconformists; they are pensive and somewhat withdrawn’; ‘We are born to have nothing, to have it pour through our hands. And yet, this pouring, this flood of encounters, struggles, dreams . . . one must be unthinking, like a tortoise. One must be resolute, blind. For whatever we do, even whatever we do not do prevents us from doing the opposite.’ Yet he has an undeniable flair for description and deft, memorable phrases. In Cassada, Major Dunning asleep is ‘heaped up like an old bear’; in The Hunters, the awkwardness of an American officer’s dancing with a Japanese woman is delicately caught: ‘A third person could, with a little difficulty, have passed between them.’
Shaw’s point that Salter isn’t interested in narrative is a fair one. The Hunters is the novel with the simplest viewpoint – the reader easily identifies with Cleve Connell. Salter never gives us so much access to a character again. His subsequent novels are much more artful, and much less affecting. The Arm of Flesh also tells the story of a new arrival in a squadron, but Cassada isn’t one of the narrators. The third-person rewrite doesn’t change this: the novel is still about the way the other pilots and officers see him. The narrator of A Sport and a Pastime admits that what he doesn’t know – a lot – he makes up for with his imagination. The results are unsettlingly voyeuristic, but the two main characters remain little more than outlines. Light Years can be described as lyrical and is deliberately episodic, with each scene and progression in time a self-contained moment. But this approach makes it difficult to understand or care about the characters, and about Nedra’s reasons for wanting to leave Viri.
Light Years is constructed as an elegy. An introductory passage about the Hudson River closely echoes the famous paragraphs about the Long Island Sound at the end of The Great Gatsby. Salter’s version is more literal: ‘We dash the black river, its flats smooth as stone . . . We flash the wide river, a dream of the past. The deeps fall behind, the bottom is paling the surface, we rush the shallows.’ It also follows Fitzgerald in reminding us of the original settlers: ‘All this was Dutch. Then, like so much else, it was English.’ (Fitzgerald, writing of Manhattan, evokes ‘the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes – a fresh, green breast of the new world’.) Yet it is difficult to see the incidents and characters of Light Years as deserving to be elegised.
One of the most memorable passages in Salter’s work comes in Burning the Days, when he sums up his time as a pilot – ‘it had been a great voyage, the voyage, probably of my life’ – and his failure to become an ace: ‘I would have given anything, I remember that.’ It’s this memory that makes the novels about flying much better than the others.