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

Portrait of James Salter.
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.

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)