John Masters is now an almost forgotten novelist, though there was a time when Bhowani Junction and Nightrunners of Bengal might be glimpsed on the paperback racks of any drugstore. Masters had been an officer in the British army in Burma during World War II, though he seldom spoke of the jungle fighting or the defense of hilltops and narrow places against overwhelming odds. A figure of quiet authority, he receives, in James Salter’s memoir Burning the Days (1997), the finest compliment a man could ever pay another: “It was to his house one would hurry in case of grave danger. He would know without hesitation what to do.”
Salter’s frank admiration for men of courage and competence is rather at odds these days with his reputation as a celebrant of “luxe, calme et volupté,” as a kind of male Colette whose compact, burnished sentences illuminate summer evenings and erotic crises in the lives of the rich and privileged. In A Sport and a Pastime (1967) and Light Years (1975), in the stories of Dusk (1988) and Last Night (2005), sex and marriage are the dominant themes, while the passage of time and impending mortality provide a subtle, inevitable counterpoint.
But in his two early novels, The Hunters (1957) and The Arm of Flesh (1961)—about combat pilots in Korea and peacetime Germany—and in his underappreciated 1979 classic, Solo Faces (about mountain climbing), these emphases are reversed. Here the protagonists hunger for glory, for recognition by their peers; they constantly test themselves against ancient ideals of courage and masculinity. These three novels are, fundamentally, studies in heroism and, often, the nobility of failure. “The deepest instinct,” Salter has said, “is to want to do something enduring, something worthwhile, and to be engaged by that, whether one achieves it or not.” In these books women serve mainly as the warrior’s rest, or they function as snares, pulling overreachers back to ordinary existence, to what Salter once called, ironically, “the life we all agree is so greatly to be desired.”
The memoir Burning the Days reflects these two aspects of Salter’s immensely interesting life. It is largely a book about love and ambition. After graduating from West Point in 1945, Salter became a career Air Force officer (leaving the service only in 1957 when he’d published his first novel and sold it to the movies for $60,000). In sections with titles like “Icarus,” “A Single Daring Act,” and “Forgotten Kings” he memorializes the pilots he fought with in Korea and the many writers and friends he has admired and learned from. Nearly all are male, some famous. By contrast, the beautiful women he lusted after and adored, loved and lost are seldom named, or they are given pseudonyms. No doubt this largely reflects gentlemanly discretion. And yet these women trouble Salter too. Not because he is married, but because they are irresistible, at once the source of temporary happiness and ecstasy and yet, on some …