Lives that seem perfect but aren’t: An appreciation of James Salter

Twenty years ago Kirsty Gunn was promoting a book about a perfect family who seemed to have everything, but whose lives were slowly falling apart. An audience member suggested she read James Salter's "Light Years". It was the beginning of a life-long love

I first came to read James Salter 20 years ago, when I was in the US on a book tour. I was promoting a novel I’d written about a family who, from the outside, seem to have everything – beauty, leisure, endless summers and a house by a lake – but whose lives are freighted by a sadness that eventually pulls them down.

After one of my readings, in Stanford, a young man came up to me and told me that I must read Light Years by Salter. “He’s interested in those things you’re interested in,” he said. “Lives that seem perfect but aren’t. He sees the cracks and broken pieces that were there all along.”

It’s true, I am interested in writing about people who seem to be living one way but are all in pieces, their situations and circumstances crazed by the cracks of something that happened to them that at first can be hard to see. It’s this idea of fragmentation, not only as a subject but as a modus operandi, that makes me love Salter’s work. He’s interested not in the sweep of a big narrative, its willed arc, moral shape – all that – but in the separate, glittering bits of his characters’ lives. He makes his stories out of the moments that glint and shine and seem so very lovely while the light is upon them. But their edges are sharp and they cut deep.

Since that day in California, I’ve read, I think, everything Salter has written: books such as The Hunters, A Sport and a Pastime, the two collections of short stories, Solo Faces and The Arm of Flesh. All these beautifully put-together fictions of lives and loves that are filled with the world’s pleasures meticulously detailed: fine clothing and restaurants, good wine and conversation, parties, society, amusements of all degenerate and gorgeous kinds, sex . . . Many books written nowadays may be full of similar treasure but it’s there as stuff, as an accessory to the character, as an example of a milieu or a social type.

This worldly material is Salter’s subject. It elevates his characters and also brings them down. I know of no other writer in English since Fitzgerald who is quite as much in love with the glitter that is gold, its transformative power; who is so entranced by the sheen that money and leisure can lend to a life but who is quite aware of the damage that can be inflicted when one is so attracted to the world’s ravishments that there is no protection from them.

All That Is, Salter’s latest novel, may be his last (he is 87), though he’s not saying that. “You have the brains,” he once remarked, “but it’s energy and desire that make you write a novel.” Still, there is about All That Is the sense that the author is telling us once and for all what he is about. Philip Bowman, his hero, is more clearly drawn – as the selfmade man who has fashioned himself from the lessons life has taught him and the instruction of others who have lived on the scale to which he aspires – than any of Salter’s other protagonists. There’s also the sound here of elegy, a grand farewell:

He had been weeding in the garden that afternoon and looked down to see, beneath his tennis shorts, a pair of legs that seemed to belong to an older man. He mustn’t . . . be going around the house in shorts like this . . . He had to be careful about such things.

For a long time, I had to buy my Salter books when I was in New York. They were hard to come by in the UK. I tried to turn people on to him here: my agent, my publisher, friends . . . But the work seemed – what? Too American? Apart from the usual procession of Roths and Updikes and despite our introduction to “dirty realism” – writers few in this country had heard of before, such as Richard Ford, Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Jayne Anne Phillips and Tobias Wolff – English readers were still very much settled on this side of the Atlantic.

Or were the stories just too glamorous? Too fancy? Too sexy? Too chic? After all, British fiction still felt mired, back then, in the late 1990s, in a kind of extended postwar gloom – stiff with privation and lack. Or if not, it was in thrall to the Amis school of what I might call hyper-novels – with out of control subject matter rendered in a style that satirised and turned to junk everything it touched. Here, by contrast, was a writer who didn’t have an ironic sentence in him, no subtext, no side. Every paragraph on every page was put there to delight and devastate.

Even readers who’d loved writers such as Cheever and Yates didn’t know what to do with this other kind of book that inhabited the same part of the eastern seaboard, maybe, with the same kinds of families mixing highballs on the flat, blue lawns in front of their white houses at sundown. Salter is not using those places as a jumping-off point for some other moral tale. Those houses, those lawns, are enough to tell the entire story.

If that makes his themes sound shallow, we should ask ourselves what it is we need in our fiction to consider it great and grave and consequential. A lesson learned? Facts given, yielded? Research shown in this subject or that? A sense provided of intellectual, spiritual, emotional enlightenment? Salter is not interested in any of this. His writing is about the “moment of being” celebrated by modernist writers such as Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, the power of the moment rendered in words. He opens All That Is with this note: “There comes a time when you realise that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.”

Salter’s first novel was The Hunters, published in 1956. A thinly veiled fictional account of his time serving in the air force, it accounted for (as did the memoirs that followed, Burning the Days and Gods of Tin) the feeling of being in a cockpit, looking out a small windshield on the world below.         

All the work, fiction and non-fiction, spins out from that first airborne novel: taking off, ascending, turning, returning to the same landing spot, this sweet earth, its necessary and lovely attractions. So we dip, we dive, we land. We meet pretty girls, have sex, fall in and out of a kind of love. There are parties, we get married, we have affairs, we get divorced. We drink whisky last thing at night, by lamplight, alone. This is what Salter has written over the years, over and over and over again. There’s nothing shallow about this world, he says. This world is all we have.

Kirsty Gunn’s most recent novel is “The Big Music” (Faber & Faber, £20)

Beauty, leisure, endless summers and a house by a lake - Salter's characters appear to be living perfect lives, but are really in pieces. Photograph: Lana Rys.

This article first appeared in the 10 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, G0

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A Lord’s Test match is a wonderful social event – not least because of who shows up for interview

My week, including an invitation to Mrs May, grilling a top copper, and the unity of Miliband and Farage.

The harrowing details of the terrorist atrocity in Nice made for a difficult listen. The atmosphere in the media centre at Lord’s that morning as we gathered for the second day of the Test match against Pakistan was muted and sombre; cricket really was the last thing on our minds.

However, there was no avoiding play starting at 11 o’clock, and that I would be on air welcoming listeners to Lord’s. How to get the balance and the tone right at such a time? Bright and breezy in a “life goes on” sort of a way? Or stunned, angry and confused, reflecting the true mood of all of us? Is sport a welcome distraction at times like this, or merely a triviality?

 

Do or Di

Unfortunately, this was familiar territory. Last November I welcomed BBC Radio 4 listeners to a relatively meaningless one-day international against Pakistan in Sharjah immediately after a graphic report on the Paris terror attacks, which had taken place the previous day. If I am honest, that occasion, thousands of miles from home, felt awkward and difficult to justify. I scripted a very straightforward and safe opening line or two, and comforted myself by recognising that, despite the horror in Paris, we were still playing cricket against a team of Muslims in the United Arab Emirates.

But my most difficult broadcast was on the afternoon of 31 August 1997. With the world in a state of shock, and moments ­after Princess Diana’s body was repatriated to RAF Northolt, BBC2 broke away with the solemn announcement: “Now cricket. Here’s Jonathan Agnew . . .”

 

Let ’em eat cake

Theresa May’s succession as Prime Minister continues the healthy connection between politicians and cricket. So far I have interviewed three presidents (Mandela, Mbeki and Musharraf), four prime ministers (Major, Cameron, John Howard of Australia and Gaston Browne of Antigua) and many other senior political figures. I am hopeful we can entice Mrs May, who watches her cricket at the Oval, to visit us next summer.

If my gentle persuasion is not enough, we can surely rely on Geoffrey Boycott’s less subtle approach. Mrs May has already surprised a few by revealing herself to be a fan of the greatest living Yorkshireman, and even delivered a cake to him when she visited Headingley last summer.

 

Be my guest

A Lord’s Test match is a wonderful social event, which gives me the chance to interview a wide variety of well-known personalities on Test Match Special. Last week’s victims ranged from Harry Potter’s Weasley twins to Britain’s most jubilant mum, the effervescent Judy Murray. Then Michael Parkinson turned the tables on me with an ambushed interview to celebrate my 25 years as BBC cricket correspondent. Wonderful memories.

The rock star Alice Cooper must rate as my most unlikely Lord’s guest (Boycott shook Mrs Cooper’s hand in the honest belief that she must have been Alice), while John Stevens of Scotland Yard gave me my best scoop. After meticulously sidestepping everything John Humphrys could throw at him that morning, Sir John arrived at Lord’s for his lunchtime date with me. Fuelled by a glass of champagne and with the band of the Grenadier Guards playing on the hallowed turf, he carefully considered my question, identical to the one he had faced on the Today programme that morning, about the number of terrorist threats on London that had been thwarted by the Met. “Eight,” he replied. And then, as every mobile phone in the media centre instantly burst into life, he quietly slipped away on holiday.

 

Bowled over

I remain in contact with many of our guests and could not avoid a chuckle when, within seconds of each other, texts arrived from Nigel Farage and Ed Miliband. It probably will not be appreciated by either of them, but they are in fact united, albeit through cricket. Farage was wearing a Primary Club tie as he celebrated his victory in a private box in the Mound Stand. Supporting cricket for the blind and partially sighted, the Primary Club is open to all those who have been dismissed first ball in any form of cricket, and the tie is adorned with shattered stumps and flying bails.

Clean bowled! The referendum claimed more than its share of those.

 

Golden glory

So to the Rio Olympics, and specifically equestrianism. Yes, it is an unlikely assignment, earned more through my wife owning a horse rather than any personal involvement, but I am taking my duties seriously and have been learning how to ride – more seriously, it seems, than the world’s top golfers who, one by one, are pulling out, citing concerns about the zika virus.

Twenty-two male golfers have withdrawn so far, including the top four in the world, confirming for many that to include mainstream, professional sports such as golf
and tennis in the Olympics was a mistake. These are highly paid sportsmen on a constant global treadmill and used to playing for serious prize money. Rory McIlroy appeared to speak for many of them before the Open when he confirmed that golfers are not bothered about the Olympics.

Whatever the reason for so many pulling out, the integrity of golf as an Olympic sport has been irreparably damaged. Not only that, but I suspect it has also done for cricket’s ambition to join the fold, which has been its aim. Perhaps it is for the best. In my equestrian circle, five of the eight members of the dressage and eventing teams are female; women are thought to be more vulnerable to the zika mozzie than men. Yet for them, as for most athletes, Rio  can’t come soon enough to fulfil their lifelong dreams of winning not money, but an Olympic medal.

Jonathan Agnew is the BBC’s cricket correspondent and a presenter of BBC Radio’s Test Match Special

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt