Essays and Criticism
James Salter Overview
Author and screenwriter James Salter wrote his first two novels, The Hunters and The Arm of Flesh, based on his years in the Air Force and his service as a fighter pilot. He revised both, and they were each reprinted approximately forty years later. Times Literary Supplement contributor Mark Greif reviewed the new version of The Hunters, which was originally published one year before Salter left the Air Force, and wrote, ‘‘more than four decades after its publication, this newly revised edition of James Salter’s The Hunters speaks more eloquently to the universal pains of competition, longing, envy, and betrayal than it could have when the events of America’s Korean War were still fresh. It is a brisk, controlled novel, written on titanic lines. As other books of its era have fallen away, this one turns out to be a classic.’’
After Salter left the Air Force in 1957 he made a short documentary film, Team, Team, Team, which won first prize at the 1962 Venice Film Festival. After that critical recognition, he wrote a number of documentaries, including a ten-part series about the circus for public television. Four of his scripts were filmed, the most successful being Downhill Racer, starring Robert Redford. His relationship with movies has been ambivalent although he wrote and directed a film starring Sam Waterston and Charlotte Rampling, titled Three.
Salter’s second book is set in occupied Europe during World War II. In reviewing Cassada, the newer version of The Arm of Flesh, a Publishers Weekly writer said that ‘‘Salter’s feeling for weather and for the dark mysteries of solitary flight is exemplary.’’ Salter considers his first good book to be A Sport and a Pastime, a novel that has been reprinted many times and is both a cult and writers’ icon. It is the story of a Yale dropout in Paris and his love affair with an eighteen-year-old shop girl.
Adam Begley wrote in the New York Times Magazine that Salter’s details, ‘‘unobtrusive in themselves, conspire to create an atmosphere so real that the love affair—agonizing, inevitable— seems to break out from the comforting confines of the imaginary.’’ Reynolds Price, a critic for the New York Times Book Review, said ‘‘of living novelists, none has produced a book I admire more than A Sport and a Pastime. . . . In its peculiar compound of lucid surface and dark interior, it’s as nearly perfect as any American fiction I know.’’
Light Years is about a suburban New York family, ‘‘the record,’’ wrote Begley, ‘‘of a marriage and a way of life that seems, at first blush, whole and perfect, the bright flower of a peculiar American hybrid, bohemian bourgeoisie; later, the illusion of harmony, like the marriage, decays. The things remembered in this deeply sad life are often just that—things; and so the narrative reads at times like a lush mail-order catalogue, a dazzling display of polished surfaces.’’
In 1977 actor Robert Redford asked Salter to write a screenplay about mountain climbing. An amateur athlete, Salter, at age fifty-two, took up the...
(The entire section is 1314 words.)