“Life,” James Salter surmised, “passes into pages if it passes into anything.” Elsewhere: “Whatever we did, the things that were said, the dawns, the cities, the lives, all of it had to be drawn together, made into pages, or it was in danger of not existing, of never having been.” These lines are vintage Salter. They elevate the sensual to the existential in one quick, seductive flow. He wrote elegies—slight works of flying, sex, mountaineering—with equal stress placed on the form, and the act.
Yet the impulse these lines represent—writing to remember, to preserve—has an uneasy corollary in the title of Don’t Save Anything, the recently published collection of Salter’s nonfiction. It’s what he had told his wife, Kay Eldridge Salter—but while organizing her late husband’s papers after his death in June 2015, she found he had in fact saved everything: boxes upon boxes of notes and drafts. His mandate meant, it turns out, the opposite. Use everything, or risk its evaporation into ether.
Don’t Save Anything comprises thirty-five nonfiction pieces, the bulk of which appeared in travel or general interest magazines over a thirty-year period beginning in the mid-‘70s. Divided into ten sections, the book couches itself in Salter’s status as a writer’s writer by beginning and ending with essays on literature: its practitioners, its future. In the middle we have a motley assortment of pieces about sex, rock climbing, skiing, filmmaking, the military, and travels to France and Aspen.
At times meandering, and nearly always mandarin, Salter’s best writing is nevertheless cleansing, beautiful. An indelible feeling his work evokes is found in the fifth chapter of his memoir, Burning the Days. It is September, 1951. He is flying solo in an F-86 for the first time, high above Presque Isle, Maine. The heat, the mosquitos down below. The first thing he did was “climb to altitude and shut the engine off. The sky was suddenly flooded with silence, the metal deadweight.” That is why you read Salter, and that is how it feels when you do.
His books, while they have the air of erudition, are carnal. They read like the action screenplays, pellucid memories of nocturnal emission, crumbled receipts from Barneys or Zabar’s. Early in the collection, Salter writes this of Isaac Babel, one of his clearest influences: “Describe he is continually reminding himself, describe.” This mandate defines much of Salter’s output. He writes around things, about their appearances, their lingering aftermath. He staked his claim on a veneer—burnished, glaring—of tectonic depth. Fleeting glances, feelings already gone. Reading a newspaper in the lobby of a hotel without a name on a day without a date; the afternoon sun coming down like cymbals—He trusted that these moments, if stacked one next to the other, comprise a life.
And yet, some moments are written better than others. Though it seems a welcome addition to Salter’s slight canon of six novels, two story collections, a memoir, and some odds and ends, Don’t Save Anything is primarily a desacralizing hagiography, a look at a revered writer under the mean exigencies of magazine work. The disappointment comes because these works are so similar to James Salter, it’s almost like he wrote them. The subject matter is the same, as is the brevity. But something’s off.
This yawning parallax not between writer and writing, but between writing and writing, is best seen in Salter’s profiles on Nabokov and Graham Greene, written for People in the 1970s. Nothing special. Nabokov wouldn’t even let him take notes! So we get absurd hooks like, “Novelists, like dictators, have long reigns.” We get Tiger Beat fodder like, “His favorite dish is bacon and eggs. They see no movies. They own no TV.” Throughout this collection, you’d be well-advised to skip anything that originally appeared in People. It’s a shame, because Salter’s editor there was Robert Ginna, his close friend. And while this might serve as a warning to keep your friends close and your editors closer, there is neither higher art nor urgency to the pieces. It’s fodder, timefill, and a reminder that Grub Street has always been there. And so, another central question is begged. Can a writer’s writer be a hack?
A blend of travel, profile, and sports writing, the other pieces feature the type of prose you get in airline magazines: sealed, and read in a similarly encapsulated environment. From this impressive distance, the world’s sprawl is succinct. Salter’s fabled brevity, elsewhere so magisterial, here feels tailored to the word count. Note such leads as “Iowa City, along its river, is a beautiful town,” which begins a profile on Frank Conroy, or, beginning a piece on Eisenhower: “He possessed, like his boss, an invincible smile.” Short and snappy, they do what they’re supposed to. They lead. They hook. But they pale in comparison to the pyrotechnic bursts of his fiction.
“September. It seems these luminous days will never end.” So begins his famous erotic novella A Sport and a Pastime. That quick one-two, we’re rolling, is all but trademarked. He begins a dinner party in Light Years with: “November evening, immemorial, clear.” Burning the Days: “In Rome, the heat bore down.” These sentences are plucked at random; there are plenty more like them. It’s not just the brevity, the sensual descriptions, the brisk, or the casual dialogue that bring a feeling of the screen to the writing. Salter’s sentences are lenticular. Seen head-on, they appear disjointed, redundant. It is in the reading, the remembering, that they come alive.
Less a primer in style, Don’t Save Anything serves as a refracted chronology of sorts that, paired with Burning the Days, creates a provisional biography of his writing career—it will have to suffice until a proper bio is written. A batch of capable pieces about rock climbing could be seen as extended note-taking for his 1979 novel Solo Faces. Similarly, his pieces on downhill skiing fed into the screenplay for Downhill Racer. One is initially puzzled as to the germination of “At the Foot of Olympus: Jarvik, Kolff, and DeVries,” an engaging, if dated triple-profile on a team of scientists attempting to create a synthetic heart. Then, toward the end, Salter mentions Threshold—a “chilling” movie about a synthetic heart. Guess who wrote the screenplay?
Beginning in the mid-‘60s and lasting for about fifteen years, this screenwriting period of his life is beautifully treated in “Passionate Falsehoods,” an adaption of a chapter from Burning the Days published by the New Yorker in 1997. New York and Rome, Robert Redford and Federico Fellini. Pasta-themed varieties of fellatio found in Bologna, the capital of both pasta and fellatio. (“Rigate, for instance, which is pasta with thin, fluted marks. For that the girls gently use their teeth.”) It’s all louche technicolor, and would overwhelm if not for the distanced, fractured mode of recollection. The period details are often thrilling, disquieting. At one point, John Huston’s mistress appears. “I liked the way she pronounced ‘cashmere,’ like the state in India, Kashmir.” The New Yorker nixed the next bit of characterization: “She didn’t like Negroes, Arabs, or certain cities; often that she had never been to.”
His screenwriting period ended on a stone beach in Nice. In a pair of Battistoni shoes, he’s exhausted, washed up, “like an alcoholic, like Malcolm Lowry.” It took too much energy, expended in the wrong direction. “Passionate Falsehoods,” and this long decade of his life, are summed up several pages later: “To write of people thoroughly is to destroy them, use them up. I suppose this is true of experience as well—in describing the world, you extinguish it— and in any recollection much is reduced to ruin. Things are captured and at the same time drained of life, never to shimmer or give back light again.” I don’t believe him, and I have a feeling that he doesn’t believe himself. But that is his power, and his fatal flaw. He can make anything sound wonderful. It entrances to the point that you don’t really care what he’s saying.
More than descriptions of luminous light and glorious glories, sex seeps through all of Salter’s work. Not just the act itself; touch, romance—all is rendered lithe and fecund. But yes, mainly the act itself, in all its glorious varieties. A Sport and a Pastime delights in depictions of fellatio and anal sex, risqué for the time. “In his clothing he conceals, like an assassin, a small tube of lubricant.” His characters “fuck in lovers’ sunshine, in the midst of the party.” And while marriages erode and hearts are broken, it makes for writing that is—what’s the go-to?—luminous. Writing’s writing.
Which makes it doubly troubling to come across smarmy dross like the near-entirety of the “Men and Women” section of the book. Take the lead essay, “Younger Women, Older Men,” which was published in Esquire in 1992. The essay features turgid, lecherous vignettes starring young women and older men. One begins, in gruesome self-parody, “The floor bare, music blaring. Aerobics.” We see a girl with a “slight tense sinew up where her legs join, the apex…. Her movements are youthful, ecstatic, hands thrown out loosely as her leg sweeps free, fine hair leaping. From time to time she looks back and smiles at a dumpy woman behind her, her mother.” Passages like this, with all the erotic luminance of a Fleshlight, pad a frilly ode to the “intoxicating relationship between experience and inexperience.”
Likewise, “When Evening Falls,” a history of French brothels published that same year in GQ, would be perfectly salvageable if he didn’t start off with a disconnected anecdote that reads like something from Penthouse Letters. “A few nights ago at dinner, they were talking about an ardent young feminist. She was good-looking, with long hair, and went around in tight jeans and high calf-leather boots…”
Salter’s other mainstay, writing about place, is represented by sections on France and Aspen. In “Almost Pure Joy,” Salter and his wife travel to Paris to give birth to their son. They bring wine to rub on the newborn’s lips, so that he’ll always have a taste for France. Endearing, but not as much as the author wandering the pre-dawn streets of the 16th Arrondissement, trying to make out the street signs, before coming into the apartment and telling Sumo, their Welsh Corgi, that he has a little boy. The articles on Aspen, written for publications like Rocky Mountain Magazine, Colorado Ski Country USA, and, simply, Aspen Magazine, are what you’d expect: Look how our little town has changed. Can you believe they used to let dogs go around sans leash? Though at times overly elegiac, his descriptions of France are matched by the history and breadth of the country, but when he turns the same devotional eye on Aspen, which, no offense to Aspen, is no France, it gets to be a little much. Most frustrating is panning through these repetitive tourism-board pieces searching for a bit of gold, then finding it.
In “Once and Future Queen,” the first of four essays dedicated to Aspen, Salter stumbles, as though it were a chunk of quartz in the snow, upon a summary of his life’s work. “There is something called the true life which I cannot describe and which perhaps varies as one sees it from different angles and at different times. At one point it is travel, at another a certain woman, at another a house somewhere with a view you will worship till you die. It is a life apart from money and to the side of ambition, a life lived in one way or another for beauty. It does not last indefinitely, but the survivors are usually not poorer for it.”
Lines like these, the shining ones, do a disservice to the rest of the work in Don’t Save Anything. Salter makes himself look bad. It’s understandable. He wrote by revision, over time.
A Sport and a Pastime, less than two hundred pages, took three years. On a practical level, he wrote by hand, then typed, then went back and retyped, retyped again. “The whole joy of writing comes from the opportunity to go over it and make it good, one way or another,” he said in his Paris Review interview. This is the writer who rewrote, and republished, his second novel thirty-nine years later.
Polished writing is the result of polishing—a slow, meditative process at odds with the time and monetary constraints of magazine writing. And so, to return to that earlier notion of diminishment. Perhaps this collection is more humanizing than lessening: an honest, mixed portrayal of a great writer’s inevitable mediocrities, stretched out over three decades of life in the sun. In a profile of Lady Antonia Fraser, Salter quotes Thomas Carlyle: “A well-written life is almost as rare as a well-spent one.” Exceedingly so. This collection serves as a warning for the deadline-pressed working writer, praying to the gods of the 1099. Salter saw his journalism as a way to make a living. But life passes into pages, and, for better or worse, the pages remain.