James Salter: An Appreciation

Where has James Salter been hiding my entire literary life? Seriously, the blurb on the book jacket and wikipedia entry laud him as a “writer’s writer.”  I agree — and then some — after reading his  mountain climbing novel, Solo Faces, and recent memoir, Burning The Days.

After mentioning the recent passing of Walter Bonatti, the acclaimed Italian climber to my business partner — a climber and mountaineer himself — he recommended Solo Faces as a great book. It is the spare, economically told story of one of the better fictional heroes in literature: Vernon Rand, a laconic climbing mystic who haunts Chamonix climbing the needles and faces by himself, rescuing lesser climbers when no one else can, a man who prefers mountains to women, though women love him.

Salter wrote the novel for Robert Redford, who commissioned it as a script (and then rejected it.) Redford had starred in a film Salter wrote, Downhill Racer,  a great classic in my opinion. The voice, the language, variously described as “compressed” and “spare” in the Hemingway school of speak-low and slow, is wonderful:

“They were at work on the roof of the church. All day from above, from a sea of light where two white crosses crowned twin domes, voices came floating down as well as occasional pieces of wood, nails, and once, in the dreamlike air, a coin that seemed to flash, disappear, and then shine again for an endless time before it met the ground. Beneath the eucalyptus branches a signboard covered with glass announced the Sunday sermon: Sexuality and God.”

The Paris Review has a great appreciation of Salter and his work here.

Salter’s life, as recounted by him in Burning The Days is remarkable, giving the World’s Most Interesting Man a run for his money.

  • Born James Horowitz, the son of semi-wealthy New York real estate developer, grandson of Polish Jews, rising from the slums to the good life during the Depression, a brilliant time in Manhattan
  • Schoolmate of Jack Kerouac at Horace Mann
  • West Point, 49th in a class of 852
  • Learns to fly in eight hours during World War II. Crashes a plane into a house in Great Barrington, Massachusetts and walks away
  • F-86 jet fighter pilot and ace flying 100 sorties over North Korea and across the Chinese border
  • Literary sensation when he publishes The Hunters  under the pen name James Salter in 1957
  • Expatriate celebrity, writing novels and screenplays in Paris, Rome during La Dolce Vita days. Elbows rubbed with Redford, Redgrave, Fellini, Sophia Lauren
  • East Hampton literary life, habitue of the 1970s Manhattan literary life
In any event, while embarrassed not to have met his work earlier, there it is, highly recommended.
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