Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The downhill racer

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James Salter

Fame was not only part of greatness, it was more. It was the evidence, the only proof. All the rest was nothing, in vain.

—James Salter, Light Years

Last week, the novelist James Salter died at the age of ninety. Many of us were introduced—or reintroduced—to Salter a couple of years ago, when a New Yorker profile by Nick Paumgarten coincided with the release of what turned out to be his final book. The piece had the effect of definitively canonizing Salter in an odd but accustomed position: the most famous unknown novelist in America. By then, the story had long since taken shape of Salter as a writer who was the equal, at his best, of Roth or Updike, with just as much critical support and acclaim over five decades, but a fraction of the sales and celebrity. As a result, he became not just a writer but a kind of mirror in which other frustrated novelists, published or otherwise, could see themselves, as well as an object lesson in the fickle relationship between fame and talent. And if Salter or his fans hoped that the profile would finally grant him the cultural prominence he deserved, they were doomed to be disappointed, in characteristic fashion, in as classy a way as possible: his last novel showed up for exactly one week on the New York Times bestseller list. It was an ending that Salter might have written for himself, although clearly not the one he wanted, and it confirmed him as our great master of doing so very much, but not nearly enough.

I was intrigued enough by the profile to pick up a copy of A Sport and a Pastime, generally considered to be Salter’s best work. And it’s a novel I wish I’d read much earlier. (About halfway through, I realized that I’d been familiar with parts of it for most of my life, through the excerpts that John Irving includes in A Son of the Circus, although I’d never made the connection before.) It covers some of the same thematic and cultural ground as Tropic of Cancer, a novel I’ve tried and failed to love, and I think it’s ultimately the better book—or at least the one that fits more snugly with my own tastes in fiction. It’s detached, precise, and a little chilly, but it also contains a higher percentage of genuine smut than any other good novel I can name. Much of it feels like a novel written for other writers. The prose isn’t showy, but it’s so obsessively polished that every paragraph comes off as a miniature textbook of craft, and although the author keeps himself at a deliberate remove, it’s constantly alive with his intelligence and skill. If I were going to recommend half a dozen novels for an aspiring writer to study closely, it would probably be among them: it’s the kind of book you keep at your elbow, as I’ve recently done, while working over your own material, both as a reference point and as a reminder of all that writing can be.

A Sport and a Pastime

But what complicates the narrative of Salter as a literary bridesmaid, never a bride, is that his life was almost indescribably rich. He went to high school at Horace Mann with Jack Kerouac, attended West Point, and flew planes in the Korean War. His first novel, The Hunters, was optioned for a considerable sum—close to half a million in today’s dollars—and made into a film starring Robert Mitchum. A short documentary he made won a prize at the Venice Film Festival almost by accident. His next script was directed by Sidney Lumet, and Salter himself directed a movie featuring Sam Waterston and Charlotte Rampling. Later, he fell in with Robert Redford, for whom he wrote Downhill Racer. Along the way, he produced a handful of great novels, a lot of short fiction, and some poetry. He was close friends with Saul Bellow before tiring of being a “wingman.” He had five children with two different wives. By all accounts, he was handsome and athletic, an accomplished skier, climber, and tennis player. His novels never sold particularly well, but they attracted high praise from the readers who mattered most. Of A Sport and a Pastime, Reynolds Price said: “It’s as nearly perfect as any American fiction I know.” But real fame, and the big literary prizes, remained out of reach, and Salter seems to have seen much of his life as a waste of time and potential.

We’re left, then, with the question of whether fame is truly the sole proof of greatness, and why a writer of such enormous accomplishments could only see the places where he fell short. (Even his admirers encouraged him in this. Speaking of Salter’s movie career, Paumgarten says without comment: “Of sixteen screenplays, only four were produced.” Any screenwriter will tell you that this is a fantastic percentage.) But he wasn’t alone. If you were going to plan out the perfect writing career from first principles—a big critical success right out of the gate, a huge bestseller at your peak, and a series of late masterpieces—you couldn’t do better than Philip Roth, and I’ve written at length elsewhere about Roth’s own disillusionment. Which only raises the larger issue of whether any ambitious writer can truly be happy. Part of it can be pinned on the neuroses that drive so many writers into the lives they’ve chosen, but not all of it is imaginary. Those of us on the outside only see the published work, but a writer is uniquely qualified to measure them against the books that were never written, and none of us ever lives up to his or her full potential. In Salter’s case, that infinitesimal gap feels especially stark: he came so close to being the best that his final, tiny shortfall feels like a failure. He can start to sound a little like LeBron James after the finals: “If I could have gave more, I would have done it, but I gave everything I had.” Salter gave even more than that, and he didn’t think it was enough. But that doesn’t mean he was right.

Written by nevalalee

June 24, 2015 at 9:51 am

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