Writer's writer James Salter short on sales but long on acclaim

NEW YORK - James Salter, whose intimately detailed novels and short stories kept a small but devoted audience in his thrall for more than half a century, died last Friday in Sag Harbor, New York. He was 90.

His wife, Kay Eldredge, confirmed his death, saying he had been at a physical therapy session.

Salter wrote slowly, exactingly and, by almost every critic's estimation, beautifully. Michael Dirda once observed in The Washington Post that "he can, when he wants, break your heart with a sentence".

But Salter never achieved the broad popularity he craved.

"You can't be admitted to the ranks of writers of importance unless you have sales," he said.

He had to settle for an admiring readership on college campuses and critical acclaim, even if the praise came with a touch of sympathy, as when James Wolcott described him in Vanity Fair as America's most "underrated underrated author".

Always a close observer of the people around him, Salter made careful notes wherever he went - to Europe and Asia for the military, to the New York suburbs to start a family, to Manhattan to establish himself as a writer and to Hollywood to write for movies, including Downhill Racer, a 1969 film with Robert Redford.

That scrupulousness showed in his first novel, The Hunters, from 1956, written when he was a fighter pilot in the Air Force. The story centres on the relationship of two fliers, an honourable veteran of the Korean War who cannot live up to his past triumphs and a pilot under his command who is preternaturally lucky but morally underendowed.

And the author's powers of observation were equally keen in his valedictory novel, All That Is, a tale of post-war New York, published in 2013. Strung between them was a series of novels, including the two he wanted most to be remembered for - A Sport And A Pastime (1967) and Light Years (1975) - along with two vaunted collections of short stories and a memoir.

Controversy surrounded A Sport And A Pastime, a slender book dense with eroticism about an American expatriate's affair with a young Frenchwoman. Their love-making is described at close range by a third party, a none too reliable narrator, in a story that has been called, among other things, "intensely transgressive".

Salter's publisher at the time, Harper, baulked, complaining that the novel had "more than the normal amount of sex" and that "it would be very thin without it", Salter recalled in an interview with The New York Times.

But with the help of George Plimpton of The Paris Review, Doubleday agreed to issue the book. The print run was small and the publishers, Salter said, "were holding it like it was a pair of dirty socks".

But the critics were reverential and when the book was reissued in 1985, novelist Reynolds Price wrote: "In its peculiar compound of lucid surface and dark interior, it's as nearly perfect as any American fiction I know."

New York Times

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2015, with the headline 'Writer's writer short on sales but long on acclaim'. Subscribe