BRIDGEHAMPTON, N.Y. — Bookshelves can be found throughout James Salter's house, arranged alphabetically and by subject matter. When the author's eye happens to fall upon the fiction section, letter "S," he will on occasion give in and reach for one of his own novels.
"I might say, 'Ah, here's "Light Years." Let's have a look.' And I turn to a page and I might read three to four pages, hoping to be filled with satisfaction," he explains. "Modesty aside, I read parts of a certain book and I think, 'Wow, I can't write like that. How did I do that?' "
An admired author for nearly 50 years of such books as "Light Years" and "A Sport and a Pastime," Salter has been writing long enough to watch himself evolve on paper, as if his works constituted a kind of parallel life that he has simultaneously observed and created.
The books themselves are stories of memory, love, war and the passage of time, how we change and how we don't, whether there is any connection between our young selves and our older selves.
Writing can accelerate that change. "In describing a world you extinguish it," Salter observes in "Burning the Days," a memoir published in 1997.
Salter, whose story collection "Last Night" was just released, hasn't enjoyed much commercial success. But among his peers he has the honored, if unprofitable, label of "writer's writer." Susan Sontag, Joseph Heller and Peter Matthiessen, his longtime neighbor on Long Island, are some of the authors who have praised him.
"I think there is an integrity and an honesty in his work that everyone in the world of the written word recognizes," says John Irving, author of "The World According to Garp" and many other novels. "I don't just admire those sentences, which strike you as so wonderful that you immediately want to read them again. I think he is as good, if not better, at making the uncomfortable observation about human beings."
The 79-year-old Salter, a relaxed conservationist with a warm, raspy voice and prankster's crooked smile, was interviewed in his living room on a recent afternoon, his easygoing Welsh corgi, Paavo, at his feet. He was still tender from hurting his knee while skiing. Salter divides his time between Aspen, Colo., and this sunny, cedar-shingled Long Island home.
Salter's own life has been a story of reinvention. He was born James Horowitz but as a writer became "James Salter," a change that "started an entirely new life." He has been an Air Force pilot, a swimming pool salesman and a filmmaker, his credits including the short documentary "Team, Team, Team" and the feature film "Three," starring Sam Waterston.
"It does seem that all those things happened to someone else," he says. "But that's what happens. If you were the same person in your 40s as you were as a high school sophomore, you would be a very strange creation."
A native New Yorker, the son of a real estate salesman who had graduated from West Point, Salter recalled in his memoir that he was an "obedient" child who was "close to my parents and in awe of my teachers. I had no crude or delinquent companions."
Like his father, he attended West Point and entered the Army Air Corps. He flew more than 100 missions during the Korean War and resigned from the Air Force as a major, in 1957. He found his calling as a writer while serving in the military, reading widely and working on stories. And he found his subject, not just war, which he wrote about in his first two novels, but the whole idea of transience, of bonds formed and then severed.
The same year he left the military, he debuted as an author with "The Hunters," a tough, straightforward novel in the Hemingway tradition that remains in print even though the author finds it "a little bit purple-y, a little bit sophomoric."
After a second novel, "The Arm of Flesh," so dissatisfied him that he rewrote it years later, Salter read "exalted" short novels such as William Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying" and crafted a story that would be "licentious but pure," a book "filled with images of an unchaste world more desirable than our own."
"A Sport and a Pastime" was a brief, poetic, almost supernaturally erotic novel about a Yale University dropout and his French girlfriend. Rejected by several publishers before George Plimpton agreed to release it, in 1967, through the Paris Review, the novel is now regarded as a classic work of erotic literature.
"There's no question it was a breakthrough," Salter says. "Look, by that time I had read [Albert] Camus, I had read [Andre] Gide. I had read writers of greater elegance and greater intellectual sinew than you usually find in American writers."
John Irving jokes that Salter's novel was the rare erotic text "that you didn't have to put under your bed. You could put it on your night table and defend it to anyone, even your mother."