High Flier

Burning the Days: Recollection

by James Salter
Random House, 365 pp., $24.00

James Salter
James Salter; drawing by David Levine

Camus once said—I think he was writing about Nietzsche—that it is possible to spend a life of wild excitement without ever leaving your desk. The life of the mind, he meant, can be as risky and challenging as any heroic enterprise. Beckett in his room, listening to his voices, following the black thread of his depression wherever it led, purifying it, refining it over and over again, was as heroic in his persistence as Shackleton and his companions rowing their open boat across the Scott Sea from Elephant Island to South Georgia.

Well, maybe. But that isn’t how it usually feels. The writer at his desk is more like a lighthouse keeper than an explorer—bored and isolated and pining for distraction. The literary world may seem appealing from the outside and some of its gaudier practitioners may treat it as though it were a subdivision of show biz—all public readings and parties and sounding off on talk shows—but in reality it is just another sedentary, middle-class profession, like psychoanalysis but far more lonely. At least the analyst gets to see patients, whereas most writers I know sit on their own and wish they were somewhere else. That, in fact, is what they write about: their fantasies of what life might be like in a world where the things people do have real consequences and the mistakes they make can’t be caught in the next draft or in proof; they have to be paid for on the nail. From the writer’s side of the plate glass window, it is hard to imagine that anyone out there would ever want to get in.

James Salter turned to writing after years in one of the most exacting and exclusive of all adventurous professions. He was an Air Force fighter pilot, not unlike one of the stars Tom Wolfe wrote about so vividly in The Right Stuff, a fighter jock right at the top of the pyramid. He had flown with men who later became famous as astronauts, Grissom and Aldrin and White; he had shot down enemy planes over Korea, and, although Salter himself is a modest man and never spells it out, he seems to have been the lead pilot in the Air Force’s aerobatics team. At the age of thirty-two, when he was still at the peak of his career, a lieutenant colonel with years to go before he would be shunted off to a desk job in Washington, he resigned his commission and settled down to write for a living.

It took a brave man to sacrifice a brilliant career doing something he loved for the chancy life of a writer. Even so, I have to confess that I find his decision baffling, if only for childish reasons. I was a kid in London when the Battle of Britain was being fought and fighter pilots—Churchill’s few to whom so much was owed…

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