Something lasting

In the driver’s seat of his well-worn Volvo, James Salter spreads a map of Long Island across his knees. His voice fragile but deliberate, he offers tales of the region’s natives and of European settlement; also of the artists who lived and worked nearby – among them Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. ”Walt Whitman called it by its native American name,” Salter says. ”Paumanok: ‘the island that pays tribute’.” Then, pointing to the map’s eastern edge, his fingers fan out. ”See how it fishtails.” It’s an observation of someone who is used to looking down on things. Salter flew F-86 Sabre jets in the Korean War, an experience he chronicles in The Hunters.
Nanjing Night Net

That debut novel, published in 1956, reads like Top Gun written by a fighter pilot with the soul of a poet. Now, on the day of the American publication of All That Is, his first novel in 34 years, Salter, 87, moves with cool confidence. He is unrushed, his words measured. Here is someone who has survived dogfights with Russian MiGs. In another life, he worked on film projects with Roman Polanski, Sidney Lumet and Robert Redford. He is also one of the most revered American writers of his generation, author of eight works of fiction, including A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years, novels long considered contemporary classics.

For the past 35 years, Salter and his wife, Kay, have divided their time between Bridgehampton, Long Island (population 1756), and Aspen, Colorado.

Evidence of their Rocky Mountain life, from which they recently returned, greets the visitor at the door in the form of Salter’s vintage hiking boots. They’re a reminder that this is the man who decided, in his 50s, to become a proficient alpinist in order to write Solo Faces, a novel many critics and climbers cite as the best ever written on the subject. About 1979, the year Solo Faces appeared in bookstores, Salter began making notes for a new novel. His readers have been waiting ever since.

An unfortunate trend in the media has been to claim All That Is as Salter’s first book in 34 years. Since Solo Faces, however, he has published two story collections – one of them, Dusk, recipient of a PEN/Faulkner Award. Other recent publications include a book of travel essays, the unforgettable letters collected in Memorable Days and the memoirs Gods of Tin and Burning the Days, the latter as generous in its offerings as any novelist’s autobiographical writings. The gap between novels and the cultish allegiance of Salter’s readers – some of whom cling to the work as though it constitutes a secret order – have made All That Is one of the most highly anticipated books of the decade.

”I was making notes for a book like this 35 years ago,” says Salter, dressed casually in jeans and a sweater and now seated, after our return from the Bridgehampton train station, at his book-strewn dining room table. ”This,” he leans in to whisper, ”is one of the hazards of being an author.” Those notes from decades past have long since disappeared.

”I remembered what they were like in a ghost-story sense,” Salter says. ”They were like that line that you write down once and you can’t remember and that cannot be paraphrased. This novel is what resulted because of that loss. But the book is not a substitution for something lost. That’s just how it came about. I didn’t postpone it.

”I didn’t say, ‘I’m going to start writing novels again.’ It was something I had been thinking of and was delayed.” As Salter writes in the epigraph of All That Is, ”There comes a time when you realise that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.” It’s the sentiment of a man who, after publishing The Hunters, left a venerable military career to assume the uncertain existence of a novelist. They are also the words of someone with firm convictions about the role of literature. In his 1993 Paris Review interview, Salter responds to a question about the urge to write: ”Because all this is going to vanish. The only thing left will be the prose and poems, the books, what is written down. Man was very fortunate to have invented the book. Without it the past would completely vanish, and we would be left with nothing, we would be naked on earth.”

It’s unsurprising that Salter’s Bridgehampton home is filled with books and other objects of the literary life. More surprising, yet entirely appropriate, are the dozens of die-cast airplane models, positioned as though on the flight line, which crowd a low shelf. (”That’s from my son,” Salter says. ”I thought they were yours,” Kay says.) In the next room, to the right of a bookshelf beside the dining table, hangs a black-and-white portrait of Isaac Babel and his young daughter, Nathalie.

”Babel was always my favourite,” Salter says of the Soviet writer. ”There are books that are different kinds of books,” he continues, looking at the photograph.

”Like things that are done by hand, they have another quality to them. This is a quality difficult to describe exactly, but any reader, anybody who likes books and reading, recognises the difference. It’s handmade. It’s created rather than just written down.” Salter could, of course, be referring to his own work. Long praised by fellow writers and critics, mass readership has eluded him. That deserves to change with All That Is. An ambitious, page-turning novel, it follows the life of Philip Bowman, a naval officer-turned-book editor, and progresses with vigour and intensity through the final days of World War II and into the postwar era. It’s at once classic Salter and an unexpected addition, in style and content, to his esteemed body of work.

”I suspected that my age was going to be a factor in people’s learning about the book,” Salter says. ”I didn’t want to be doddering along and sentimentally and nostalgically petering out, so the idea of pace was on my mind when I was writing.” He has also grown tired of the ”writer’s writer” label. ”I wanted to write in a somewhat leaner style than I had in, for instance, Light Years, which is abundant in its metaphors and its recognition of the beauty or the singularity of certain things,” he says. ”With this new book, I wanted to let the story and the instances give you the sense that it’s moving along.” All That Is stems from Salter’s long fascination with the lives of editors. ”I thought it was a rather perfect life,” he says. ”Editors are involved in reading, in books, and doing something that might have some real importance. The editors that I knew had friends in other countries who were also editors. It was a kind of family, a possibility of friendships that were long-lasting and put you in contact with other cultures, other countries. The editors I came to know were all mature men. I didn’t know them before I had written a few books. Only then did I come to know them both professionally but also socially, personally. That’s how the book came about.” There were three editors whom Salter particularly admired.

”And there were two other men who impressed me and who I wanted to write about,” he says. ”So I took a shot at doing a cubistic kind of method of putting them together.” About Philip Bowman, the character amalgamated from these lives, Salter writes in the novel: ”What the joys of music were to others, words on a page were to him.” An alert sounds, signalling a new message on Salter’s computer, and he excuses himself, saying, ”That may be from my publisher.” Seated at his living-room desk, he breaks out into laughter. Richard Ford has written to discuss the pair’s coming on-stage event at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan. ”He doesn’t want introductions,” Salter says. ”He just wants the two of us to go out and do it.” Returning through the kitchen, Salter passes two boxes filled with the Knopf hardcovers of All That Is. He holds up a copy, proud to show it off. ”Suddenly what you have written has an authority that it didn’t have before,” he says.

Back inside the car, Salter turns right out of the driveway and almost immediately pulls over to examine the construction, a mansion with an attached guesthouse. ”These are Wall Street executives,” he says, going on to talk about the many changes Bridgehampton has undergone since he moved here. The conversation soon returns to literature, complete with the appropriately timed detail: ”Here is Peter Matthiessen’s house,” he says. ”You can’t see it from the road, but trust me. It’s back there.” At Bobby Van’s, a restaurant on Bridgehampton’s picturesque storefront block, Salter says, ”I want to show you something.” Perhaps the lunchtime patrons recognise him as the greatest American prose stylist of his generation, but it’s unlikely that this detail makes them turn to watch Salter pass. Handsome and elegant, he moves with gravitas and grace down the long bar and stops beneath a black-and-white photograph of four men standing outside the restaurant, circa 1975.

”That’s James Jones, [Truman] Capote, Willie Morris and John Knowles,” he says. In one photograph, a generation of elite American writers, Salter’s age or younger, each long dead. He pauses, as though offering respect, and it’s easy to imagine that Salter’s ambitions have changed little since his school years, when the idea, as he writes in Burning the Days, had been inside of him ”like a pathogen – the idea of being a writer and from the great heap of days making something lasting.”

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.