Category Archive 'James Salter'

19 Jan 2019

Salter at West Point

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James Salter was a fighter pilot during the Korean War.

Arnold Gingrich, Esquire’s great editor, is spinning in his grave. Former contributors, like Papa Hemingway, doubtless remark ironically in Hell about what has become of the former men’s magazine, today, in the hands of hipster millennial metrosexuals, full of left-wing piety and political correctness.

Today’s Esquire makes a somewhat desperate effort to rustle up subscribers (who wants to read PC sermons and lectures on Diversity?) by recycling quality writing that appeared in the magazine back in the good old days.

The latest revival item is a gem, a 1992 memoir of West Point by James Salter.

My father, hair parted in the middle, confident and proud, was first in his class. A brilliant unknown with a talent for mathematics and a prodigious memory, he graduated just ahead of a rival whose own father was first in 1886.

The school was West Point and he had also been first captain, though that was harder for me to imagine. In any case, the glory had slipped away by the time I was a boy. He had resigned his commission after only a few years and not much evidence of those days remained. There were a pair of riding boots, some yearbooks, and in a scabbard in the closet, an officer’s saber with his name and rank engraved on the blade.

Once a year on the dresser in the morning there was a beautiful medal on a ribbon of black, gray, and gold. It was a name tag from the alumni dinner at the Waldorf the night before. He liked going to them; they were held toward the end of the winter and he was a persona there, more or less admired, though as it turned out there was a flaw in his makeup not visible at the time that brought him, like Raleigh, to the block. It was not his head he lost but his kidneys, from high blood pressure, the result of mortal anguish, of having failed at life.

When I was older he took me to football games, which we left during the fourth quarter. Army was a weak but gritty team that came to Yankee Stadium to play Notre Dame. Behind us, the stands were a mass of gray, hoarse from cheering, and a roar went up as a third-string halfback, thin-legged and quick, somehow got through the line and ran a delirious, slanting eighty yards or so until he was at last pulled down. If he had scored, Army would have won.

In the end I went to the same school my father did, though I never intended to. He had arranged a second alternate’s appointment and asked me as a favor to study for the entrance exam. I had already been accepted at Stanford and was dreaming of life on the coast, working for the summer on a farm in Connecticut and sleeping on a bare mattress in the stifling attic, when suddenly a telegram came. Improbably both the principal and first alternate had failed, one the physical and the other the written, and I was notified that I had been admitted. Seventeen, vain, and spoiled by poems, I prepared to enter a remote West Point. I would succeed there, it was hoped, as my father had.

In mid-July up the steep road from the station we walked as a group. I knew no one. Like the others I carried a small suitcase in which would be put clothes I would not see again for years. We passed large, silent buildings and crossed a road beneath some trees. A few minutes later, having signed a consent paper, we stood in the hall in a harried line trying to memorize a sentence to be used in reporting to the cadet first sergeant. It had to be spoken loudly and exactly. Failure meant going out and getting in line to do it again. There was constant shouting and beyond the door of the barracks an ominous noise, alive, that flared when the door was opened like the roar of a furnace. It was the din of the Area, upperclassmen, some bellowing, some whispering, some hissing like snakes. They were giving the same commands over and over as they stalked the nervous ranks that stood stiffly at attention, still in civilian clothes, already forbidden to look anywhere but straight ahead. The air was rabid. The heat poured down.

I had come to a place like Joyce’s Clongowes Wood College, which had caused such a long shiver of fear to flow over him. There were the same dark entrances, the Gothic facades, the rounded bastion corners with crenellated tops, the prisonlike windows. In front was a great expanse, which was the parade ground, the Plain.

It was the hard school, the forge. To enter you passed, that first day, into an inferno. Demands, many of them incomprehensible, rained down. Always at rigid attention, hair freshly cropped, chin withdrawn and trembling, barked at by unseen voices, we stood or ran like insects from one place to another, two or three times to the Cadet Store returning with piles of clothing and equipment. Some had the courage to quit immediately, others slowly failed. Someone’s roommate, on the third trip to the store, hadn’t come back but had simply gone on and out the gate a mile away. That afternoon we were formed up in new uniforms and marched to Trophy Point to be sworn in.


24 Jun 2015

James Salter, 1925 – 2015

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James Salter, West Point graduate, fighter pilot, novelist, film director, lady killer, and mountain climber, died last Friday suddenly at his local gymnasium in Sag Harbor, Long Island at the age of 90.

Salter never attracted a mass audience and consequently never wound up included in last century’s list of “great American writers”, but sophisticated readers did read him with deep respect and always kind of wondered exactly why that was the case. I suppose the combination of Salter’s hyper-masculine point of view and the gem-like perfection and careful stoical restraint of his prose style somehow failed to capture the attention of the popular culture in our hyper-democratic age. Salter’s perspective reeked of elitism, and he never trafficked at all in conventional archetypes.

I expect he would have enjoyed more money and larger public recognition, but Salter never took any of the conventional writer’s shortcuts to obtain them. He never manufactured a public persona (like Papa Hemingway) nor even a specifically recognizable genre of writing of his own. Each of Salter’s novels is very different from the others. There is a kind of stubborn authenticity about Salter.

His 1998 autobiography, Burning the Days, struck a sudden bell in the consciousness of the establishment media. From being an author lucky to be favored with a quick one-column review in the rear pages, Salter suddenly became, in his latter years, “the best writer you’ve never read.” I expect he smiled ironically at that line.

14 Apr 2013

James Salter’s “All That Is”

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It has been more than 30 years since James Salter, whom I consider a quite interesting writer of the second rank, published his last novel. The publication of his new book has provoked frequent observation that Salter is really a much better writer writing more substantive and thematically worthy of attention novels than certain better-known establishment writers of fiction, but his work has, for five decades now, somehow mysteriously escaped wide attention.

The new novel is certainly not a masterpiece, but it is a very satisfactory read. It reminded me of John Marquand. The protagonist, Phillip Bowman, serves as a young naval officer in WWII, attends Harvard, and then becomes an editor in a NY publishing house. He marries a young woman out of the same Virginia equestrian circles I currently frequent, and Salter delivers a quite accurate portrait of the Virginia Hunt Country and its unique ethos. The marriage fails for reasons that are not entirely clear. The problem is apparently simply the fact that Bowman takes her away from Old Virginia and moves her to New York where she is obliged to live without horses and hunting and her family and home society. Bowman goes on without excessive perturbation to have other relationships and affairs. He meets a woman returning on a flight from Europe. They share a taxi, and ultimately live together. But she, too, leaves him, and opportunistically gains ownership of the house he purchased for their use by means of legal chicanery. A good while later, he runs into his former lover’s daughter, whom he had known when she was a child. He is friendly, dismissive of the wrong her mother did him, and he proceeds to take advantage of the opportunities which present themselves to make love to her. He persuades her to let him take her on a trip to Paris, where he shares with her his sophisticated knowledge of the city and its restaurants and Picasso’s paintings of Marie-Thérèse Walter, and skillfully makes love to her. When he has finally succeeded in bringing her to the peak of erotic fulfillment, he calculates that she will, before very long, come to her senses about the enormous gap between their ages and the unsuitability of their relationship. He then simply walks out, paying the hotel bill, and leaving her penniless in Paris, knowing full well that she will have to seek the assistance of her mother. The reader is likely to think Phillip Bowman cruel. Like Marquand, Salter writes basically about what he knows, and tends to present fictional versions of himself, portraits of the gentleman of accomplishment, the cynical and astute observer of society and humanity, and the homme moyen sensual, the connoisseur of sexual relationships and the female body.

“All That Is” is a novel about love, but Salter’s view of love is appreciative yet unsentimental. Phillip Bowman is grateful for the female companionship that life brings his way, but he is not wildly optimistic about his own motives and capacity for enduring affection or those of any of his successive string of partners. For Salter, love is always, as the title of an earlier novel put it, A Sport and a Pastime.

There was this count, and his wife said to him one day that their son was growing up and wasn’t it time he learned about the birds and the bees? All right, the count said, so he took him for a walk. They went down to a stream and stood on a bridge looking down at peasant girls washing clothes. The count said, your mother wants me to talk to you about the birds and the bees, what they do. Yes, father, the son said. Well, you see the girls down there? Yes, father. You remember a few days ago when we came here, what we did with them? Yes, father. Well, that’s what the birds and the bees do.”

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