The Hunters, 1956
The Arm of Flesh, 1961, revised 2001 (as Cassada)
A Sport and a Pastime, 1967
Light Years, 1975
Solo Faces, 1979
Dusk, and Other Stories, 1988
Downhill Racer, 1969
The Appointment, 1969
Still Such, 1992
Burning the Days: Recollection, 1997
James Salter (born James Horowitz) moved with his family to New York City when he was two. His father had attended West Point and later the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and became an engineer and real estate broker. James went to a number of city schools but spent his high school years at Horace Mann, a prep school in Riverdale. He was accepted at both MIT and Stanford but also took the exam for West Point as a favor to his father. He was accepted and entered West Point in 1942. He graduated in 1945 and missed action during World War II. He joined the Air Force and for the next dozen years remained in the service, at first flying routine assignments in the Pacific but later serving in the Korean War as a fighter pilot, in which he flew more than a hundred missions. After the war he was stationed both in the United States and in Germany with a fighter squadron.
In 1951 Salter married Ann Altemus (they were divorced in 1975), and the first of their four children, a daughter, Allan, was born in 1955–she died in an accident in 1980. Another daughter, Nina, was born in 1957 and finally the twins, Claude and James, in 1962. In 1957 Salter resigned his commission–he was a major–to devote himself to writing, which with some brief interludes he was able to pursue more or less full time.
In 1976 Salter began living with Kay Eldredge, with whom he had a son, Theo, in 1985, and whom he married in 1998. In 1997 he published Burning the Days, a series of recollections. Salter received a number of literary awards, including the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award in 1982, the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1989, and the John Steinbeck Award in 1989.
Salter’s first two novels were based on his years in the Air Force, first his experiences as a combat flyer in Korea (The Hunters) and later his tour of duty in peacetime Germany (The Arm of Flesh). The Hunters follows the brief career of Cleve Seville (Connell in the later edition), an F-86 pilot who must confront his ambition for personal glory and honor against the backdrop of aerial combat in the Korean skies. Frustrated by the easy achievements of a fellow pilot, Ed Pell, Seville discovers a more authentic vision of himself. After he is shot down, Seville does win a kind of fame when, during an interview on getting his “ace,” Pell acknowledges that Seville taught him everything he knew.
The Arm of Flesh was originally written as a novel told from multiple perspectives, rather like William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930). Salter used seventeen different narrators, most of whom speak only once. When the novel was republished, he greatly revised its style and gave it a new title–Cassada. In both versions the narrative focuses on the day-to-day routine of a fighter squadron stationed in Germany during the Cold War. The central figure is Captain Isbell, the squadron commander, who befriends a new recruit, the eponymous Cassada, in order to encourage him to become a better pilot. The conclusion of the novel leaves Isbell, returning to the United States, haunted by the memory of his protégé, who has sacrificed himself while trying to help his commander to land on a fog-enshrouded field.
Salter’s third book, A Sport and a Pastime, became his most celebrated. A three-character work, it follows the lives of a Yale dropout, Phillip Dean, and his provincial French lover, Anne-Marie Costallat, while they explore the sensualities of travel and sex, as witnessed by the unnamed narrator. The novel is Salter’s celebration of both France and sexuality. The combination of the exotic and the erotic allowed him to explore foreign places through the short-term affair, making them a single experience.
Salter had his first brush with motion pictures when The Hunters was filmed by Dick Powell in 1958. The next year Salter formed a film company with Lane Slate and from 1962 to 1964 made several documentaries. In the late 1960’s Salter worked as a screenwriter on feature-length movies, initially writing Michael Richie’s Downhill Racer for Robert Redford. After The Appointment, he adapted a short story by Irwin Shaw to produce Three, which he eventually directed himself.
Light Years is a novel about a disintegrating marriage. Over a period of some twenty years, it follows the gradual erosion by time of a relationship. In the beginning Viri and Nedra Berland and their twin daughters, Franca and Danny, live what appears to be an idyllic life in an old house on the Hudson River north of New York City. The various affairs of the principal characters, the maturation of their daughters, and the passing of the years slowly break the family apart. By the novel’s end Viri has married for the second time, Nedra is dead, and the two daughters are living lives similar to that of their parents. It is a nostalgic book, autumnal in mood, which is presented in Salter’s episodic style of individual scenes which reveal the concrete details of the diurnal world of family and marriage.
Salter’s novel Solo Faces originally was written as another cinematic treatment for Redford. When that project fell through, Salter turned the screenplay into the novel, at the suggestion of his editor. Although the book returns to many of Salter’s familiar subjects, the details focus on the solitary life of a mountain climber, Vernon Rand, who eventually disappears at the novel’s end, having lost his will to climb as a result of the inevitable passage of time and aging.
Salter’s other two book-length works are a collection of his short fiction and a recollection. Dusk gathers most of the stories Salter had been writing since they first began appearing in the pages of The Paris Review in the early 1970’s. The stories, which reveal Salter’s mastery of the form, won the author the PEN/Faulkner Award and established him as a short-story writer of distinction. In Burning the Days Salter traces the various strains of his life: his growing up, his West Point years, his time in the military, his involvement with film, and his career as a fiction writer.
Salter never received much public acclaim, the sales of his books have remained modest, and his fame is largely confined to a handful of other writers who have praised his prose through the decades. He is a “writer’s writer,” a label of which he grew weary. Nevertheless, James Salter remains one of the most accomplished literary stylists of the late twentieth century.