The first thing I did was look for him, in the flesh. The Master himself—a term I have privately used for James Salter, not because Salter has any similarity to the crazed guru in a movie with Joaquin Phoenix, but because I consider him a modern age Henry James. Salter is also a perfectionist and cool stylist. He makes the surface gleam, then cuts to the quick with perfect strokes. Even better, unlike James, Salter is not at all squeamish about sex. His characters pulsate. And his sentences are short, simple, clear. Devastating. Sit on a train with him, as in A Sport and a Pastime, and roll past fields the color of bread and people who stand and freeze in place like cows, then back to port wine stains like channel islands on a female passenger’s legs, and on, flicking through images “as if a huge deck is being shuffled. After this will come a trick. Silence, please.” But Salter is the magician. The magic is about to unfold.
“Did you see the piece in The New Yorker?” This was the man next to me at Salter’s reading for Inprint at The Menil, also fortunate enough to get a seat. The event was sold-out. The New Yorker had just run a marvelous article about Salter. “Perfect timing, right?” He was older, in an expensive sport jacket and good cologne. I felt a little guilty sitting there among the privileged, then a little better when I noticed all the twenty-somethings (I wondered how many were lit students) there to hear this eighty-seven year-old man. My neighbor’s favorite Salter book was Burning the Days, his memoir as a fighter pilot, balanced, as ever, with scenes of love—I expect of the misguided variety. Continue reading