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 by so many—were every schoolboy’s heroes. Most of them were young men fresh out of school, only a few years older than we were, but with their reticence and casual gallantry, their leather flying jackets and white silk scarves, they seemed unimaginably glamorous, and the deadly aerial ballet they performed above our heads each day—Spitfires and Hurricanes versus Messerschmitts and Heinkels—was the most exciting show on earth. I yearned to do what they were doing more than I have ever yearned for anything. Luckily for me, the war ended before I was called up and the yearning faded, but in that embarrassing corner of my heart where the inextinguishable schoolboy lives on I am still convinced that flying a fighter plane is the most exciting of all possible activities. To give up all that for the solitary life of a writer is hard for me to comprehend.
As Salter describes it, the decision was equally incomprehensible to him, and Burning the Days is, among other things, his attempt to solve the mystery. For years, the challenge and exhilaration and companionship of flying gave him everything he wanted, so the idea of quitting came to him out of the blue, as unexpectedly as one of the MIGs he had fought over the Yalu River. All it took was a casual remark by an acquaintance and suddenly his whole life was unraveling:
A few months earlier, Spry, who had graduated a few classes after me and was in group operations, had told me he was resigning. Almost at that instant—he had somehow given me the freedom, hurled the first stone—I made the decision. It was far from decisive, I had perhaps waited too long, but there was still the idea that had never left me, of being a writer and from the great heap of days making something lasting.
The Air Force—I ate and drank it, went in whatever weather on whatever day, talked its endless talk, climbed onto the wing to fuel the ship myself, fell into the wet sand of its beaches with sweaty others and was bitten by its flies, ignored wavering instruments, slept in dreary places, rendered it my heart. I had given up the life into which I had been born and taken up another and was about to leave that, too, only with far greater difficulty….
I was thirty-two years old and had been in uniform since I was seventeen. As I walked into the Pentagon I felt I was walking to my death.
The wording makes it clear that, even forty years on, Salter is still uneasy with his decision. He says he turned writer with the idea of “from the great heap of days making something lasting.” Yet, like the autobiography itself, the chapter in which he makes his choice is called “Burning the Days,” as though what he had really done was reduce to ashes everything he had previously been and believed in.
Why did he do it? Kenneth Littauer, Salter’s first literary agent, had also risen young to the rank of lieutenant colonel, but he quit the army, he said, because “there was no one to talk to.” That does not seem to have been one of Salter’s problems. He enjoyed the company of his fellow pilots, their shop talk and swagger and wild partying, almost as much as he enjoyed flying and for a time was content to keep his writing apart: “Late at night, back from a restaurant, back from the bar, I sat writing. I had three lives, one during the day, one at night, and the last in a drawer in my room in a small book of notes.” When the small book of notes became a novel it was time to change his life. He wasn’t a loner, although loneliness—“a lonely impulse of delight,” Yeats called it—was one of the pleasures of flying. But he was a very private man, and true privacy was something the Air Force could never provide.
Salter is private even when he is writing the story of his life. Burning the Days, in fact, is extraordinary for the things he doesn’t mention, beginning with his real name. It was Horowitz, but because his first novel, The Hunters, was written when he was a serving officer he was obliged to publish it under a pseudonym and the pseudonym stuck. He also doesn’t mention that The Hunters was sold to Hollywood and made into a film starring Robert Mitchum. He says very little about his first marriage and nothing about his second, although he is not at all reticent about his many casual love affairs along the way.
The truth is, facts don’t much interest him, although the facts are intriguing. His father was an engineer turned property speculator, a powerful, stylish, rather distant figure whose speculations, in the end, went badly wrong. But between the wars the family was still comfortably off and rising, and Salter’s childhood on the Upper East Side was sheltered and conventional. His mother was “handsome and haughty”; his father’s “suits and shoes came from De Pinna, and mistresses from women who worked in the office or the garment district”; Salter went to summer camps, where he learned to box, and to the best private schools, where he read Dickens and Byron and Kipling. He planned to go on to Stanford but his father had graduated first in his class from West Point so, as a favor to him, Salter applied there too, and was accepted.
All he found at West Point was his father’s inner world writ large: “It was a place of bleak emotions, a great orphanage, chill in its appearance, rigid in its demands. There was occasional kindness but little love.” Salter writes brilliantly about his first year as a “plebe”—the endless drills and parades, the utter lack of privacy, the brute authoritarianism, the senseless orders that had to be obeyed because, for soldiers, orders are orders, however senseless:
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….
It is the sounds I remember, the iron orchestra, the feet on the stairways, the clanging bells, the shouting, cries of Yes, No, I do not know, sir!, the clatter of sixty or seventy rifle butts as they came down on the pavement at nearly the same time. Life was anxious minutes, running everywhere, scrambling to formations.
Being a Jew called Horowitz can’t have made his difficult life any easier, though he doesn’t mention it because Jewishness was not something he had been brought up to think important. His family was nonreligious, more or less assimilated and long established in America. All Salter says is that he resented having to go to Friday evening services and soon dropped them in favor of Sunday chapel. He was indifferent to both religions, though his own religious difference probably meant a good deal to his fellow cadets in the 1940s and must have added to his general misery. During his first year, Salter loathed the whole mindless bullying show but, knowing that his elegant, unloving father had flourished at West Point before him, he refused to be beaten and yearned secretly to succeed.
At the same time, kindled in me was another urge, the urge to manhood. I did not recognize it as such because I had rejected its form. Try to be one of us, they had said, and I had not been able to. It was this that was haunting me, though I would not admit it. I struggled against everything, it now seems clear, because I wanted to belong.
In the end, he accepted the whole West Point code: duty, honor, country, and also comradeship and self-reliance. By the time he graduated, in 1944, the sheltered, bookish New York boy had disappeared forever. He was one of them; the army had become his life.
It turned out to be a very good life indeed. No one, not even Saint-Exupéry, has written better about the thrill and pleasure of flying. This, for example, is Salter learning to fly, sensing for the first time the wild freedom of what he beautifully calls “unstructured air.”
Early flights, the instructor in the rear cockpit, the bumpy taxiing on the grass, turning into the wind, tail swinging around, dust blowing, and then the abrupt, wild sound of the engine. The ground was speeding by, the wheels skipping, and suddenly we were rising in the din to see the blue tree line beyond the field boundary and, below, the curved roofs of the hangars falling away. Now fields appeared, swimming out in all directions. The earth became limitless, the horizon, unseen before, rose to fill the world and we were aloft in unstructured air.
And this is his first experience in an F-86, flying as wingman to a veteran of the Korean War:
He rolled over and, power on, headed straight down. I didn’t know what he intended or was even doing. I fell into close trail, hanging there grimly as if he were watching. The airspeed went to the red line; thousands of feet were spinning off the altimeter. The controls grew stiff, the stick could be moved only with great effort as we went through rolls and steep turns at speeds so great I could feel my heart being forced down from my chest.
We burst through the overcast and into the narrow strip of sky beneath. I’d moved to his wing again. We were well over five hundred knots at about fifteen hundred feet. It was almost impossible to stay in position in the turns. I had both hands on the stick. All the time we were dropping lower. We were not moving, it seemed. We were fixed, quivering, fatally close.
Five hundred feet, three hundred, still lower, in what seemed deathly silence except for an incandescent, steady roar, in solitude, slamming every moment against invisible waves of air. He was leading us into the unknown. My flying suit was soaked, the sweat ran down my face. A pure pale halo formed in back of his canopy and remained there, streaming like smoke. I began to realize what it was about. Never looking at me, absorbed by the instruments in front of him and by something in his thoughts, sometimes watching the world of dark forest that swept beneath us, hills and frozen lakes, he was gauging my desire to belong. It was a baptism.
Nothing Salter has written matches the intensity and precision of his descriptions of flying. I think they are what he will be remembered for. “It had been a great voyage,” he says of his time in the USAF, “the voyage, probably, of my life.” Everything that followed was an anticlimax.
His father died, broken, broke, and chronically depressed. One year later, Salter resigned his commission. Having vindicated himself by his father’s unforgiving standards, he set out to prove himself in literature. Some writers, like Salter’s friend John Masters, author of Bhowani Junction, lead adventurous lives as soldiers, then settle down and write adventure stories. Salter was more ambitious. In Auden’s words, “Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after”; Salter says, “I wanted…to achieve the assoluta.” Stirring yarns didn’t interest him; he wanted to transmute adventure into high art, like Conrad and Malraux, and it shows in his prose.
Irwin Shaw, who improbably became a father figure to Salter, put his finger on the problem: “The difficulty, he had told me at one point, was that I was a lyric and he a narrative writer. ‘Lyric’ seemed a word he was uncomfortable with. It seemed to mean something like callow.” No one could seriously accuse Salter of being callow but I see what he means. Shaw was a storyteller who used prose like a blunt instrument; Salter is a stylist whose prose is sophisticated and self-conscious to the point of mannerism, and he is simply not interested in telling stories. All his novels are short, full of telling insights and passages of dazzling description, yet somehow they lack a narrative thread and drain away into the sand. Even the story of his own life—especially his life after West Point and the Air Force—is told in fragments, as though held together only by a sensibility, not by a man who suffered and was there.
While Salter was in Europe with the USAF after World War II, he lived the grand life of the imperial occupying army, dining at the best restaurants, staying at the best hotels, with money to burn and all the girls he could want. Along the way, he developed a passion for France and things French. (His erotic novel, A Sport and a Pastime, is as much a love letter to provincial France as it is to the young object of his desires.) He also fell under the spell of the New Wave writers like Marguerite Duras and their oblique, detached approach to the art of the novel. His own temperament was too romantic—too high-flown in every sense—for him to follow them all the way but he was impressed by their attention to detail, their aesthetic detachment, and their ways of linking disjointed moments.
Details, in fact, are what interest him most—details woven together to create mood and atmosphere:
She was from Marseille, skin pale and shining like fruitwood. Her dress was cut low, her breasts smooth and perfectly separated. We danced like a couple, as if we had come there together. She was pressed against me. The black tile pillars slid before my eyes, the mirrors, the trio at the floorside table, two men and a girl with short black hair, the gold of a wedding band on her finger. They were the haut monde, come for titillation.
Canadian pilots are entering. The band is playing something I would like to remember. Far away it seems, unmourned, are all the other nights, the unattainable women, nurses, admirals’ daughters, the colonel’s wife that time unsteadily playing blackjack. “Just give me a little bitty one,” she pleaded, “don’t give it to me unless it’s little.” It was dealt. A jack. She stared at it, looked at her hole card, stared again. Her handsome, slurred face. “All right,” she announced, “twenty-one.” But it was not. The dealer took the money.
The morning light of Africa is brilliant and flat. The empty street, the silence. How was it? they want to know.
The effect is a kind of pointillism in words, at once pure and tricky, full of allusions and reverberations and, sometimes, unnatural inversions, glowing but static, a prose that leads back onto itself, seeking perfection for perfection’s sake.
When Salter is writing about his military life, the dangers of such impressionism don’t seem to matter because he is still in the grip of what happened to him and the intensity of his experiences carries him through. The combination of intensity and chiseled prose, in fact, is what makes the first half of his book unique. But his life after flying was far less interesting. His novels didn’t sell well, so while he labored over them he kept afloat by writing film scripts, drifting between Los Angeles and Rome, with diversions to Paris and London. One of his scripts was for the excellent Downhill Racer, with Robert Redford, but most of them came to nothing, though they paid his expenses lavishly and he continued to live the rich imperial life, courtesy of the movie business.
The second half of Burning the Days contains many clever sketches of the stars and fixers and whores who make up the demimonde of Hollywood and Rome’s Cinecittà. Salter is sharp-eyed and generous in writing about friends, but movie and literary gossip is thin stuff compared with what has gone before and Salter seems to know it. The most moving passage in his story of his life as a civilian—his “counterlife,” he calls it, “a life of freedom, style, and art, or the semblance of art”—is his description of the Apollo 11 moonshot in July 1969. He watched it on television in the St. Regis Hotel, in the company of a nubile Italian mistress, who had flown from Rome to meet him. While the two of them were making love, his friend and fellow pilot Buzz Aldrin was on his way to the moon, along with Neil Armstrong, to step onto its surface and into history. Watching the blast-off, Salter feels first the “confusion and panic” of someone who has been left behind, then “hollow, as if I had lost everything”:
I have never forgotten that night or its anguish. Pleasure and inconsequence on one hand, immeasurable deeds on the other. I lay awake for a long time thinking of what I had become.
Aldrin was achieving celebrity as a hero, the celebrity Salter had once yearned for and might also have achieved if he had stuck to flying, but which he knew no book of his would ever bring him.
As though to emphasize that he has betrayed his own code, he follows the scene immediately with a sketch of a rich Italian scriptwriter in Hollywood. He is a man who seems to have everything: “the grand house, the Rolls-Royce in the covered driveway, the gardens,” and a graceful Swedish girlfriend to go with them. Not so, says a mutual friend. “He’s an artist manqué. He thinks he’s wasted his talent on movies, which he detests. Actually, he’s never written any good movies—they’re all trash except for one…. He’s the saddest man I know.”
Unlike the Italian, Salter has written several impressive books, and Burning the Days, the one in which he tries to make sense of his life, is his best, more evocative and reflective than anything else he has written. It is his moonshot, though whether or not it makes up for not walking on the moon only he can say.
January 15, 1998