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The Things That Matter

In His Memoir, Author James Salter Opens a Window Onto Life's Shaping Forces

September 03, 1997|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BRIDGEHAMPTON, N.Y. — Some interviews begin long before one sits down with the subject. In the decades that he has been writing novels, stories and various New Yorker pieces, James Salter has placed before us a way of living in which all the senses are open, novels through which one repeatedly asks oneself: This is fun but can it last? This is exciting but does it matter? This is beautiful but is it essential? The end of the pleasures he so acutely describes--youth, innocence, sensuality--is always in sight, sweetening the present, giving it resonance.

In his first novel, "Hunters and Gatherers" (1956, just reissued by Counterpoint), he drew on his time as an Air Force fighter pilot in Korea, evoking the awe of flying and the camaraderie of warriors. "A Sport and a Pastime" (1967) is a classic erotic novel, set in France. And "Light Years" (1974) is full of the details of domestic paradise.

Now Salter has just published his memoir, "Burning the Days" (Random House), a true literary event since he has long been admired among writers for his lean and modest style. With very few words and a poet's attention to essential detail, he conveyed the essence of a languid dinner, a family house, a brief love affair. Emotion is often invested in and revealed through things. He has in his writing style a stoic's attention to form, formality and limits. He is, in short, the last writer in the world one would ever expect to write a confessional memoir.

The author is 72 years old, broad chested, graceful, vigorous. A friend has told him that memoirs are best written in that period of "white-haired youth," when the writer has both the energy to remember certain details and the maturity to leave others out. He leans in a chair with his legs crossed as he tells me this, in the manner of men from the East Coast. "You should," he remembers someone saying, "have no more sentimentality than God."

Salter lives here with his wife of 21 years, Kay, and their 12-year-old son, Theo. His three children from his first marriage are grown up and far away. On this late summer day at the family's house, modest and comfortable and gray-shingled, everything good about Long Island stands out: tomatoes and corn in buckets at the roadside stands, the smell of the ocean and most of all the long, low, yellow light.

There is a reason writers and painters flock here, braving the neurotic New Yorkers, the traffic and the ostentatious shops. Salter, who grew up in Manhattan as James Horowitz, came to the Hamptons in 1952, when he was stationed in the Air Force at Westhampton Beach. After living in Europe and in Aspen, Colo., he came back to live here in 1980. The family spends the winter in Aspen, and this fall Salter will teach at Williams College in Massachusetts.

"In the end," he writes in "Burning the Days," "the self is left unfinished. All the exceptional details, confessions, secrets, photographs of loved faces and sometimes more than faces, precious addresses . . . stories, sacred images, immortal lines, everything heaped up or gathered because it is intriguing or beautiful suddenly becomes superfluous, without value, the litter of decades swirls at one's feet."

"I'm not interested in human frailty, in weakness," says Salter, in the book's prologue and on his screened porch. Indeed, the first section of the book describes Salter's childhood and his father, an unsuccessful developer who succumbed, in the end, to a failure of will, but moves quickly on to the core of the memoir: Salter's education at West Point and his life as a fighter pilot. It was in these decades that Salter formed the friendships with men that made some of the deepest impressions on the writer.

"I tend to be a bit of a stoic," he says when asked about his lack of interest in weakness, a surprising quality in the memoir. Salter moves simply from relationship to relationship, countless affairs with married women, affairs during his first marriage (most of which he was in love with the wife of a very close friend--called Leland in the book. "Really," he tells me, "I loved Leland as much as Paula!") and his flirtation with the movie business. The relationships with men seem deeper and more worthy, in the end, of his loyalty.

"Perhaps," he says, "you should talk to Kay about this."

She is somewhat reluctantly enlisted, having just recovered from a grand lunch hosted by George Plimpton in Salter's honor. "We have a big history," she begins. "Jim has a deep interest in women, in the unknown and the mysterious. There is an element of not wanting to limit his experience. As for hardhearted, no, no! He's a romantic! Of course it's not in his nature to bare his soul, to spill everything out. He'd always rather hear someone else's story. Even old friends sometimes complain of a distance, but I think he would rather talk about what he's seen."

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