James-Salter-All-That-Is-200x300Whether naturally born or G-force bred, fighter pilots embody a unique strain: their hell-bent defiance of physical laws kept in check by a meticulous respect for man-made machinery. After serving a dozen years in the Air Force – flying combat missions in the Korean War – James Salter applied that elevated mix of risk and control to definitive novels of erotic discovery and marital malaise. As the author now approaches ninety, his latest novel, All That Is, finds the former officer devoted to a trio of tasks: setting his affairs in order, offering loving remembrance, and demonstrating his intent to stand firm to the end.


DH: Barcelona is a city I can imagine leaving…for the beach. If Barcelona is in the mind ofJames Salter, then the reader can be set down in the streets of the city, even if they’ve never been there. As for my friend JC, who recently set off for BerlinZurich and Vienna, he can have them.

Malcolm is asleep. His steel rim glasses, which he doesn’t need, lie on a table by the bed. He’s compared to the keel of a ship. What I’ve noticed right off in my first JS story is that the writer is a master of the suggestive fact…of facts that have vaporous ghosts of abstractions clingiing to them as if the facts could be haunted.

There are priorities in what Salter wants to talk about. I notice that JS goes on for about half a page, associating M with images of strength…steel glasses (one), he doesn’t need them (two), body parts like the keel of a ship (3).

It’s only after we’ve been though half a page of Malcolm asleep that we are introduced to Nico, his partner. She’s already awake and has gone out to the terrace after her bath. Since I’m myth-saturated, I associate Malcolm with the sleeping Eros…Eros is often depicted in art as sleeping. It’s very dangerous to wake him. It’s not necessary for Salter to have thought of this at all. But the myth helps me to see something…that Malcolm is being presented as a god and maybe, I’m wondering, to Nico he is one.

I’m indebted to Salter for the slow elevator approach to storytelling. Nico goes down the slow elevator of her building to get Malcolm a morning coffee from a restaurant. Can you guess that Malcolm likes it black? “Solo” he says. And that Nico is getting it for him and likes getting it for him?

There was a time in my life when I was on a slow elevator off Spring Street in Soho a great deal. Christ, that elevator took forever. It must have been a hundred years old. But I understand about slow elevators. JS has a great line: as the lift drifts down from floor to floor, it’s like Nico is passing through decades of her life. In my opinion, you have to be in midlife to appreciate a slow elevator.

The slow elevator approach to story telling…you see, we’ve passed down another floor in my post. You don’t discover how the reality of another person changes right away. It happens slowly, like a play, scene by scene. I’m paraphrasing Salter here. This is what Nico is thinking. Reminds me of that Boulez piece, Pli Selon Pli…fold after fold.

Salter goes on to introduce fold after fold of cognitive dissonance until “the story” can’t take it anymore and breaks up into a sputtering coda of non sequiturs. I’m a great fan of having the structure of a story buckle with the sense of what’s happening.

Let’s all go to the beach. Who doesn’t want to go to the beach? So JS sends his characters and his readers to the beach at Stiges. But S introduces a new character, Inge, Nico’s friend from when she was going solo, as the agent of dissonance.

It’s awesome how the great JM piles on pleat after pleat of disturbance, all of it MINOR, but the effect is to overwhelm.

First off, it’s genius to have Malcolm encounter Nico’s old girlfriend, Inge, from her unattached days. This excavates Nico’s old personal history…rarely a positive experience for anyone. Shows the boyfriend what you were like before he met you.

Here are some folds for you: They go to the beach in Inge’s car. She doesn’t realize it’s a piece of junk, Malcolm drives but Inge leans over to use the horn uselessly when they get stuck in traffic. Even though Inge owns a piece of shit, she talks about owning a Mercedes someday…several. She is overweight but wears a dress that’s too short. She talks about the boys in a bar not being able to buy you a dinner. She wants to run on the beach in front of expensive villas so she can be ogled. She berates her boyfriend who she called at 5 in the morning because he didn’t call her back the previous night. She dreams that every guy who lays her for one night may want to marry her.

It’s genius that Nico becomes emotionally exhausted and falls asleep on a couch in the restaurant she selects for the trio afterward. The real nightmare occurs when she wakes up, groggy I would think, and sees Inge in a tete a tete with her boyfriend.

I’ve mentioned just a few of the minor key measures that shadow this less than five page story. It’s called ‘Am Strande Von Tanger’ and it’s in Modern Library’s wonderful reissue in cloth of James Salter’s collection “Dusk and Other Stories”.

DH: I. The sentences are swift, declarative. Like Joseph Roth used to say about Vienna under the Emperor Franz Joseph, the then-famous “Vienna walk”. See The Radetzky March (1932) for the reference. But who gets to be New York? Who gets to be Vienna.? That changes. But there will always be one. Just like there will always be a Grand Hotel. Do you know that one?

And then we get “the last rank in the armies of law” below the clever junior partners who are below the full partners who dined at the Century Club. August seniors who couldn’t urinate and those who couldn’t stop. I’ve only paraphrased Salter’s sentences. But notice how the last sentence, even in paraphrase, stops at “stop”. And we get not “the law” which would put us in a cable police procedural, but just “law” which means it’s your crowd. We also get that they were living in apartments with funny furniture and sleeping until noon on Sundays. Hierarchy, irony, swiftness, secularism, style, power, money, stacked vertically: New York. Just one paragraph.

II. Frank and Alan catalog the available girls at the firm and the girls that they wish were. It’s a catalog like they are petty Don Giovanni’s. JS is always providing us with poetic sequences in the form of these lists. It’s like the modulating chords in a Mozart symphony. The listings transition you.

The period in this list of “girls”…and I’m using the word in the text…is Brenda. And the guys end up at her apartment, too late for a party. Knock out image: rolling around the walls kissing as the dusk settles in. The sense of New York apartment light: for most diffuse, bouncing off a thousand buildings and two rivers before it gets to you. Brenda has the same kind of furniture her mother had, sits in the same kind of chair, only she does everything her mother wouldn’t. Exchange of office news: “Jane Harrah got fired.” Brenda said. “That’s too bad. Who is she?”

III. Frank and Alan jump-start to the next level by being more unscrupulous than their own management. They form a partnership and steal a lucrative client away from their own firm. The case settles out of court and their fee is a percentage of the deal, millions. They don’t get prosecuted for this. I don’t know if that’s possible. But Salter implies that the dumb shits got lucky and got away with it. It’s like they stumbled into a fortune at Las Vegas. It’s unethical but now they are rich.

This third part of the story transitions to the continent where the guys seem to be giving the worse kind of imitation of eurotrash. It’s always Frank in the lead with Alan as the follower. I appreciated how well JS sets up this relationship, this tacky friendship, so the reader sees a dynamic…not just two guys blowing away thousands on credit cards in Europe, spending themselves into boredom. Buying people too, in this case a young woman, a student they pick up, throwing thousands in gifts at her as if it were just so much shit.

The uselessness of inappropriate wealth. The waste. They are still the guys from the office. On the make for the girls. They haven’t learned anything. And they are even stupider than they were before. But here’s a great throwaway line from Venice: “On the curtained upper floors the legs of countesses uncoiled, slithering on the sheets like serpents.”

You’ll find pleasures both sacred and profane in the short stories of James Salter. But you are encouraged to be a connoisseur of the word if you want to appreciate them. This is a discussion of ‘American Express’ from James Salter’s collection, “Dusk and other stories”.

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DH: If you back-flip The Lovers by Vendela Vida you will find six blurbs. What the blurbs say is of no importance. Also of no importance is whether the authors of the blurbs have read The Lovers. There are no negative blurbs, which would be a crime against nature.

Four of the six blurbs are by writers I love: Francine Prose, Aleksandar Hemon, Julie Orringer and Zoe Heller. I circled the names of the other two, Miranda July and Stephen Elliott, so I would remember to read them.

Vendela hasn’t made writing this novel easy for herself. She keeps Yvonne, her principal, isolated for a remarkable amount of time. Is this a disastrous mistake? You write “John sat in his room.” or “John made coffee.” because you don’t know what the fuck to do with John.

Hawthorne wrote a chapter of “The House of the Seven Gables” that consists of a dead character in a room. I love the chances that great American literature can take.

The good double V makes Yvonne’s isolation the shoreline on which The Lovers pivots. Yvonne is a widow traveling back to Darca in Turkey, where she spent her honeymoon,  to reestablish a living tie to her husband, Peter. They were Vermont schoolteachers. Peter died, parked, in a hit and run.

Yvonne has pulled out the plug since her husband’s death. I love Vida’s small, insistent psych-outs, like gnats buzzing around your ears. You try to brush them away but you also wonder if it’s just your imagination. Because Yvonne has disconnected herself, she’s set up for a pattern of confusions.

Y is a highly competent teacher but she’s caught teaching the same lesson twice to the same class. Her principal urges her to take vacation time and VV implies he’d be happy to have Yvonne on vacation permanently. She arrives at the small Darca airport from Istanbul and waits around for her pickup, a stranger in alien territory, thinking that there’s been some terrible mix-up about her email-made arrangements. We’ve all been through the missed connection. But Yvonne feels at sea congenitally so it doesn’t take much for her to fear she is sinking.

Yvonne’s rented vacation house has a history. Yvonne walks through the three floors plus basement, trying to put together the decor combination of tackiness and affluence. Who lives here? Why is there a hook in the ceiling above the bed in the master bedroom? There are porn pictures under the couch and sex toys left out in another bedroom upstairs. But you have to sleep somewhere. Choose. The reader becomes the character if there is no other character. There’s no one else to identify with. The reader will always identify with someone or they will put the book down.

I’ve talked to Caitlin Macy about her skilled use of the unreliable narrator. I should have added at the time that CM’s narrators think they are reliable. Jason Rice has told me that it’s not possible to fathom intentions. That’s one reason for the methodically observed detail of speech and behavior in his powerful fiction. The good Johnny Evison has told me how characters struggle for self-realization, how there’s a wall or a quirk (struggling with my own words here) that can hold them back. And in two posts I’ve written about James Salter, I’ve talked about his slow-elevator technique of storytelling. How writing doesn’t spill the beans all at once, anymore than you can transition in the blink of an eye from the tenth floor of a building to the lobby in a hundred year old lift. Now from the splendid Vendela Vida, as I try to piece together a model of writing, I see these techniques internalized in one central character attempting to escape from mourning.

I’m such a lucky guy to be blogging. I can ask some of the most talented writers how to write, directly, and even ask them follow-up questions. Especially if I try to ply them with beer. It’s like I’m walking along the strand, tripped up by beautiful seashells, not knowing which to pick up.

If you flip over The Lovers from the pantheon of blurbs side and look closely at those words and “Vendela Vida”, you’ll find a font of seashells. They play an important role in the story. Also, in the lower right hand corner of the cover, you’ll see a dark silhouette of a boy facing you, eyeless, standing in the surf. That is the story. Of course I noticed that VV has picked a lead character’s name that has a “v” in it…and a “Y” that has a “v” on its roof.

In page after page of sensitively observed detail, psyching-out expertise and growing, owl-like shadows that have you dreading what the next page may bring, dreading what may happen as much as Yvonne, Vendela Vida shows us how to write a novel. I’m saying this with great respect, deference even, for distinguished art…but I don’t care who her husband is. I’d rather read Vendela Vida than Dave Eggers. Taste.