All That Is, by James Salter, Picador, RRP£18.99/Knopf, RRP$26.95, 304 pages
Collected Stories, by James Salter with an introduction by John Banville, Picador, RRP£18.99, 256 pages
Morning. The dentists are laying out their picks. In the doorways as the sun hits them, the bums begin to groan.” Only one living American writer could produce that Manhattan haiku: James Salter, who is forever being rediscovered and who could be forgiven, at 87, for being tired of it. The cliché about Salter is that he is “a writer’s writer”. While all writers would prefer to be a reader’s writer, any toiler of the page, on getting an eyeful of Salter’s hard, sharp gem-cut prose, feels simultaneously exhilarated and depressed by its icy hit; rather like the perfect martinis he is said to make every evening. It is writing that asks us to open our eyes wider, listen more attentively, be more brutal in self-correction, strive for the compression of poetry.
Salter’s fans divide into devotees of the short stories and admirers of his novels. There are six of the latter to admire – two of them coloured by his experiences as an American air force pilot flying missions in the Pacific and during the Korean war; then there is the erotic-operatic A Sport and a Pastime (1967), half Henry Miller, half Julia Child in which Phillip Dean has anal sex with a French waitress, Anne-Marie, while she reads an old copy of Réalités magazine.
For many of us, though, it’s the short stories which make him one of the greatest writers of the last century and the present one, up there with Carver and Cheever, the mind-blowing Lydia Davis – who has just won the Man Booker International Prize – and the Fitzgerald of Babylon Revisited.
Republished this month, the strongest of Salter’s stories are shadowy and sinister with a whiff of his two favourite perfumes, sex and death, hanging over the scarifying prose. “Twenty Minutes”, read in real time, features an injured woman pinned beneath her fallen horse, reviewing her life as it runs out of time and luck. “The Cinema”, the best thing ever written from the inside about moviemaking, gets inside the head of stars, directors and the screenwriter that Salter once was. And sewn through the thread of his fierce little narratives are splinters of unlikely illumination; a soft touch the usual set-up for the piercing sting: “She looked very young. She looked like a young dog, the white of her eyes was that pure.”(From “American Express”.)
What makes the short stories perfect are the fully-mastered qualities Salter has said he finds in Isaac Babel – “style, structure and authority” – all of which pose different challenges over the length of a novel. A Sport and a Pastime holds together because it is structured around a single driving obsession, the hunt for love in the thick groves of lust.
Salter, or his alter ego, this time called Philip Bowman, is still on the track of sustained love –“the furnace into which everything is dropped” – in his first new novel in more than 30 years, All That Is. But after an adrenalin-rush opening with the battle fleet steaming to Okinawa, it’s a long, long trail a-winding through a procession of women, none of whom rise from the ecstatically dampened sheets into living presences, especially not when they open their mouths. They just process before us: the blonde Virginian from horse country; the unhappily married Englishwoman who crumples when her greyhound takes a fracturing spill; then impulsive Christine, “her gorgeous body like a separate entity”.
It doesn’t help that Salter plants Philip in the world of Manhattan publishing dinner parties, with mild changes of scenery in the Hamptons and the Hudson Valley, and hops to the cultcha-spots – London, Paris, Venice – and an unSalterian rain of cultural name-dropping: Picasso, the photographer Edward Weston, Ezra Pound, Francis Bacon. All of which makes you wish Philip had turned to long-distance trucking.
But there are enough transporting moments to make the book worth the price of admission: a pearly vision of the sludgy New Jersey marshes, humorously known as “The Meadowlands” with a distant prospect of Manhattan; the most innocently rapt description of fellatio you will ever read; a wonderfully poisonous dinner exchange in a second marriage:
“‘What, darling? Enough of that? I’m sorry.’
‘All you do is talk, talk, talk.’
He pursed his lips slightly as if in consideration.
‘You shrew,’ he said.”
Some of the best passages in the book are those which come closest to short-story form, like the two-page micro-sketch of the Swedish publisher for whom women were “the chief reason for living” but who “accepted the reality of what had happened with women he loved, principally, which was one of the things that led, despite his position and intelligence ... to his suicide at the age of fifty-three, in the year that he and Karen parted.”
The loose ribbon of chronicle that binds all these comings and goings together is of course deliberate. Salter wants nothing so meretricious as a narrative arc to which the more wayward passages of life must be nailed. Instead he wants us to go wandering, pillow to post. In an interview, Salter has said that life, viewed from some place at the end of it, is nothing more than its several fragments strung end to end, each one to be lived exactly in its moment.
Easier said than done, right? But in a poignant envoi near the end of the book he makes it clear that the realisation that this is indeed all that there is, doesn’t for a minute make it any less worth capturing in his glinting words.
Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor