With Salter by Her Side

Keeping the work of a favorite author nearby forever.
August 8, 2016

I’m a novelist, working, published (and broke), and I have a confession: Since Pico Iyer recommended James Salter’s Light Years to me two decades ago, I don’t think I have written a word without that book by my side. It’s my favorite of all his works of fiction, because of its focus on the way men and women interact in the world, because of its sheer lyricism, and frankly, because of its length—a very satisfying immersion. The book follows a family, the way relationships diffuse, dissolve, begin elsewhere.

What Salter does remind me most of a visual artist's enterprise—he paints worlds beside worlds, shows relationships in their ever-variegated nature, talks about the sudden flare “when one makes a friend just when the heart is beginning to close.” And he always shows, never tells. Not a lot of adverbs. If there’s a joke, you have to get it. He’s not going to tell you “everybody laughed.”

After I read him as a reader, I’ve spent the rest of my time reading him as a writer. He is especially deft and succinct when he sketches a character portrait, as in this case, about a thirty-year-old playwright, who “was self-indulgent, a failure. He had not abandoned failure; it was his address, his street, his one comfort. His life was one of intimacy and betrayal.... He kept everything he announced, he kept it here, tapping his chest.”

Just a few swift strokes, and the person appears—outlines and center.

I was lucky enough to meet Salter when I found out he was going to read at Southampton College, and I made sure I got there. 

The man fit his writing—vigorous, handsome, strong. He read with a clear, even tone, and his words, as always, mesmerized me. Although for me there is no greater intimacy than reading itself, I found myself equally transported by hearing him speak. 

We heard about Nedra, a remarkable woman and the book’s most vivid character, his description both global and detailed, read, “the seasons became her shelter, her raiment. She bent to them, she was like the earth, she ripened, grew sere, in the winter she wrapped herself in a long sheepskin coat. She had time to waste, she cooked, made flowers, she saw her daughter stricken by a young man.”

After what has appeared to be a blessedly happy union, with no further introduction, we are presented with a sudden turn of events:

“To her husband she was understanding, even affectionate, though they slept as if there were an agreement between them; not so much as a foot ever touched. There was an agreement, it was called marriage.

“ ‘We must speak of it like a dead person,’ she told him. The hard yellow apples were on the table, the sections of the newspaper.

“ ‘Nedra, it’s obviously not dead.’

“ ‘Would you like some toast?’

“ ‘Yes, thank you.’

“ ‘It is,’ she said.”

Because I went to his reading, he graciously came to mine; thus began a desultory relationship, in which we exchanged a few letters (I wrote to him once that I was doing “all the worst things” and he wrote back, “But the worst things are the most interesting!”)

He has taught me everything I know about writing. He has influenced me beyond imitation and infiltrated right to the marrow of my style.

The single time I wrote to ask him for a favor (that of introducing me to the creators of Narrative.com), the letter was Returned to Sender. That was how I found out he was dead. The last line of my (now forever unopened) letter was this:

You must never die.

And the truth is, he never will, because his writing is immortal; as Jean Cocteau once said, the true point of art is “to simply overwhelm one soul.”

Consider this one overwhelmed. 

McCloy ’84 is the author of three novels, Velocity, Some Girls and Hollywood Savage. She lives in Oakland, California, and is working on her fourth novel.