Books: A Right Way to Live and Die

There are no happy endings in James Salter’s Collected Stories. Not because the stories are unrelentingly tragic, but because people’s lives are complex, their emotions are inconstant and Salter is unwilling to tie things up artificially into a pretty, optimistic bow. Most of the stories are about romantic relationships, but if one of the characters finds love at the end, it’s generally at the expense of someone else having lost it.


In “Bangkok” a woman tells her former lover that she wishes she hadn’t had the affair which ended the relationship. “I just had a foolish impulse to try something different,” she says. “I didn’t know that real happiness lies in having the same thing all the time.”


Whether this is true, or merely looks that way from the other side of the fence, it’s a mantra that few of Salter’s characters are capable of living by. Sex is frequently the driving force of the narrative and infidelity is almost constant, casually taking place on the sidelines even in the stories where it isn’t the main event.


A girl who’s sleeping with a married man in “Platinum” asks to borrow a pair of his wife’s earrings, just to “wear them once, something that’s hers but at the moment is mine”, while a man in “The Destruction of the Goetheanum” makes his young lover “come to restaurants where he was dining with his wife and sit at the bar so he could watch her while they ate”. In a line that embodies the prevailing attitude of emotional selfishness, another character is described as having “that cruel, intuitive knowledge of how the new life” — in this more sexually liberated but romantically volatile half of the century — “should be lived”.

Salter does not necessarily support that imperative. He once told the Paris Review that he thought there was “a right way to live and to die” and that he believes “real devotion is heroic”. If he fills his stories with emotionally ruthless characters, it’s not because he admires that quality, but because he feels it accurately reflects the fallible, unheroic way that most of us live our lives.


Unlike most of us, Salter has an intimate knowledge of a more traditional, military type of heroism. He was a pilot for 12 years in the US Air Force and spent his twenties fighting in Korea, demobilising after his first book was published in 1956. The disjuncture between his life as a writer and the world he left behind is glimpsed in “Lost Sons”, where an ex-soldier who has become a painter attends a military reunion where the officers’ wives are at first intrigued and then warily disconcerted by his unusual change in profession.

Although he has described the transition as a traumatic one — “you go from being a kind of aristocrat in the Air Force to being a nobody on a bus” — Salter managed it fairly successfully, writing five novels between 1956 and 1979 that were critically acclaimed, although never as widely read as contemporaries like Roth and Updike. But it is only with the recent publication of All That Is, his first novel in 34 years, that he has suddenly been unequivocally raised up into the canon and hailed as “the Forgotten Hero of American Literature”.


It was in anticipation of this renewed interest that these stories, previously published in two separate collections in 1988 and 2005, have been brought back into print. The cult status that he has always quietly had within literary circles – Richard Ford and Dave Eggers are among his devotees – has earned him the epithet of being “a writer’s writer”. It’s a mantle he carries a little uncomfortably, admitting in a recent interview that he “became a little self-conscious about people telling me how much they loved my sentences. It’s flattering, but it seemed to me that this love of sentences was in some sense getting in the way of the book itself.”

Yet despite Salter’s worries, it would be almost impossible for his elegant syntax to distract from the power of his stories. It’s not that every one of them is perfect – among the gems are a few rougher diamonds – but he is shockingly acute at stripping away people’s social facades, revealing the fears, loneliness and longing that lie beneath. He has said that he admires French writers “for their lack of sentimentality” and that he has particular respect for Colette, who manages to combine this with a real “warmth; she is not a cold writer, but she is also not sentimental”.

Salter himself shares just the same qualities. His stories are full of moving vignettes and characters whose motivations are held affectionately, if ruthlessly, to the light. He never shies away from exposing the casually brutal way that – in the self-absorbed pursuit of their own desires – most people treat one another. Yet by showing us their vulnerabilities alongside their failings he allows us to understand the characters, and the world, a little better.

This article appeared in the July/August 2013 issue of Standpoint Magazine