Books

book review

Elegant, evocative essays marred with a view of women from another era

Writer James Salter at his home in Bridgehampton, N.Y., in 2005.
ap file photo/2005
Writer James Salter at his home in Bridgehampton, N.Y., in 2005.

Esteemed by his peers as “a writer’s writer,” James Salter honed over the course of 60 years the lean, elegant prose style that graces each page in this new collection, “Don’t Save Anything.’’ The subject matter will be familiar to his readers: the stern ethos of military life, the equally stern imperatives of literature, the exhilarating rigors of extreme sport, the civilized joys of France, good times and changing times in Aspen, complex sexual and emotional negotiations between men and women. The interests of Salter, who died in 2015 at the age of 90, reflect a world view shaped by his education at West Point and career in the Air Force, including service as a combat pilot in Korea. He resigned in 1957, after the success of his first novel, “The Hunters,’’ but as he writes in a short 1999 essay, “Deep inside . . . there still exists that ethic, long drummed in and well-remembered.”

He’s referring to the fighter-pilot ethic: “[D]on’t lose your nerve and, more important, don’t appear to be losing it.” More generally, as demonstrated over and over in this volume, Salter values risk taking, discipline, and commitment. “Heroes are those with something at stake,” he declares. Profiles of champion skier Toni Sailer and rock climber Kevin Donald express his admiration for physical risk taking as “entry into myth.” A lovely 2009 tribute to Isaac Babel spotlights the discipline of a great writer, “constantly searching for the right word or expression, significant, simple, and beautiful.” Describing the pivotal moment when reading “Under Milk Wood’’ sparked his overwhelming longing to become a writer, Salter conveys a view of literature as something “sacred,” requiring total commitment.

A fine piece about Eisenhower as the “military manager” of World War II shows that Salter has a nuanced view of when heroism is required and when it isn’t. In an article about the first women to graduate from West Point, he wonders whether traditional notions of heroism and honor still apply. Salter’s extremely ambivalent depiction of female cadets reveals a man of 55 grappling with social change he can’t entirely embrace. He reports the deep-seated hostility women faced, quoting an upperclassman who told a new female student he would take off his cherished class ring “if there’s ever a woman first captain.” But he also quotes without comment a male cadet who says that a female classmate “epitomized why women shouldn’t be here. She didn’t seem to try, didn’t put out, didn’t care about the squad.” Salter seems to regard the harassment of women as no different than the brutality meted out to all during the grueling first two months known as “Beast Barracks.”

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Which brings us to Salter’s attitude toward women generally, an aspect of this beautifully written and generally appealing anthology likely to make many readers squirm. It’s not that he dislikes them; the pieces about France in particular feature several charismatic and assured women, presented as the embodiment of a sophisticated lifestyle rooted in sociability, good food, and fine wine. The essentially patriarchal nature of this view comes across in his portrait of Ilena, a 23-year-old he met in Rome in 1963. The fact that she was married to a man in his 80s and was the “mistress”of director John Huston did not deter Salter, himself married, from saying “I adore you,” nor does their affair deter him from describing her trading sexual favors for the promise of a part in a movie in neutral terms that imply this is how women get ahead.

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Even more discomfiting is the tortuous “Younger Women, Older Men.” published in 1992 (1992!) in Esquire. Salter clearly knows he’s on dangerous ground. The jaw-dropping statement, “Happiness is often at its most intense when it is based on inequality” is hastily followed by, “all that is struck down. It is part of the darkness of colonialism and perhaps racism . . . sexism, too.” Yet the faint note of regret is unmistakable and several italicized passages — lip-smacking snapshots of young women in bikinis, on the soccer field, at aerobics class — just make things worse. “Don’t save anything,” Salter told fellow writers, urging them to use the material that presented itself to them without hesitation or delay. In the case of this embarrassing essay, one wishes he hadn’t followed his own advice.

There’s much to admire in the values Salter conveys with such lucidity in his work and in the unflinchingly honesty with which he voices more tangled, less admirable feelings. Like any writer, he is the product of his personal background and his historical moment, which come alive for better and worse in this evocative, sometimes maddening collection.

DON’T SAVE ANYTHING:

Uncollected Essays, Articles, and Profiles

By James Salter

Counterpoint, 320 pp., $26

Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at The American Scholar and Publishers Weekly, reviews books for The Washington Post.