The Great Heap of Days

Last Night

by James Salter
Knopf, 132 pp., $20.00

Light Years

by James Salter
Vintage, 308 pp., $14.00 (paper)

Solo Faces

by James Salter
North Point, 218 pp., $13.00 (paper)

The Hunters

by James Salter
Vintage, 233 pp., $13.00 (paper)

Gods of Tin: The Flying Years

by James Salter, edited and with an introduction by Jessica Benton and William Benton
Shoemaker and Hoard, 150 pp., $24.00

…It was in me like a pathogen—the idea of being a writer and from the great heap of days making something lasting.”

—from Burning the Days:Recollection

Born in 1925 in Passaic, New Jersey, a graduate of West Point, and a fighter pilot in the Korean War, James Salter is the author of a relatively small body of prose of uncommon subtlety, intelligence, and beauty. Especially in his deftly rendered shorter fiction, gathered in Dusk and Other Stories (1988) and now Last Night, as in the remarkable Light Years (1975), Salter suggests not the heavy hitters of his era—James Jones, Irwin Shaw, Robert Penn Warren, John O’Hara, Norman Mailer, William Styron, and Saul Bellow, for whom prose fiction is an arena for sinewy self-display and argumentation—but such European sensibilities as Proust, Colette, Woolf, Nabokov, Marguerite Duras.

Salter remarks with a kind of off-handed regret in his memoir Burning the Days (1988) that no work of his is filmable, but in fact Salter’s elliptical, impressionistic prose suggests the films of Antonioni and Bertolucci, who may well have had some influence on his fiction. Rare in the fiction of a male writer of his generation, Salter’s work reveals virtually no interest in politics and social issues and very little interest in reigning ideas, popular obsessions, psychology. In his shimmeringly sensuous meditation upon mortality, Light Years, which reads like an eroticized To the Lighthouse, the concerns of Salter’s Caucasian, bourgeois characters are exclusively familial, aesthetic, sexual. Though the novel moves through the violent upheaval in American society of the 1960s, Salter’s characters are untouched by assassinations, civil rights demonstrations, the Vietnam War and its protesters, the disintegration of drug-ravaged communities.

A Sport and a Pastime (1967) is a lyric account of youthful erotic love in “green, bourgeois France” imagined by a voyeuristic American observer, and Solo Faces (1979) is an impassioned account of the mystique of mountain climbing, seen primarily through the consciousness of a fanatic devotee for whom “what mattered was to be a part of existence, not to possess it.” Salter’s characters inhabit not history but time; not a snarled world of politics and events but a pastoral world forever beckoning, and forever elusive, like the highest and most treacherous peaks of the Alps.

As an Air Force pilot, James Salter flew F-86 fighter planes in more than one hundred missions during the Korean War, an interim of his life described with dreamlike precision in Burning the Days and in his first novel, The Hunters (1956). When he resigned his commission at the age of thirty-two, he’d been in uniform since the age of seventeen and he had just published, under a pseudonym, The Hunters: “Salter was as distant as possible from my own name. It was essential not to be identified and jeopardize a career…. I wanted to be admired but not known.” Though he seems to have renounced these early realistic novels* in favor of his later, more experimental …

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