(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In an era rife with memoirs and autobiographies, James Salter’s Burning the Days stands out for its elegance, sensuality, and style. Although described, on the title page, as “Recollection,” the book is as carefully shaped as any piece of recent fiction. It evokes, in its precision and in the sensibility that informs every page, not so much a personal life as a way of approaching life and a way of describing experience that characterizes an era of literary style and apprehension long since gone.

Salter, the author of six works of fiction published over a writing life of more than forty years, spent his earliest adult years as a fighter pilot. Maturing in a period when flying still held a high magic that was somehow connected to the romantic dreams of writers and when the spirit of the French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry hovered in the atmosphere, Salter crafted a prose style that would encapsulate the heroism of flight in words capable of evoking a postwar world of bittersweet dreams and nostalgic disillusion. Burning the Days, the title a metaphor adopted from the author’s experiences flying missions over the Yalu River in the Korean War, is a beautifully written book, one made to be read carefully and slowly, but it is also, in many ways, a throwback to an earlier age, an era shaped by the early writings of Ernest Hemingway and even more by F. Scott Fitzgerald, an era that one realizes is completely over only when a book such as this appears.

The organizing principle of Salter’s “recollection” is not the life of a man but the performance of that life. “I have written only about certain things, the essential, in my view,” the author notes in the introduction. The book is, thus, in direct opposition to the confessional exploration of memory that often passes for a memoir. Selection, not inclusion, is the shaping force. The work grew, we are told, from a single essay, “The Captain’s Wife,” published in 1986 and now the central chapter of the book. That chapter, with its vivid description of two passionate but ill-fated love affairs and its evocation of a particular kind of army life on Hawaii in the days immediately following World War II, captures both the doomed romanticism that informs the entire memoir and the focus on subtle, sometimes hidden, heroism that determines the structure of each chapter.

Salter spent his early years in New York City, living a life alternately of privilege and, as his father earned and lost money, of occasional disruption and discomfort. If his father, a businessman who speculated in the real estate market, turned out to be a less inspiring model than a determined and ambitious young man might want—he was to die of what seemed to be despair in 1957—there were at least some other heroes to take his place, people in whom Salter would see the equivalent of Hemingway’s “grace under pressure,” neighbors, teachers, and friends, male and female, who impressed the boy with what later seemed to him dignity and innate fortitude. The latter, the defining quality of the hero of English writer Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Ballad of East and West,” passionately memorized by the schoolboy and recalled at length by the adult man, would be exemplified by the pilots and writers who were to fill the author’s later days, but, in this early chapter, Salter finds it equally well embodied in the mother of a friend, a woman with whom he established intense and lasting ties. Her intelligence and insight captured Salter’s imagination, as did the incredible physical suffering of her later years.

Salter prefaces the statement about selectivity quoted above by noting that he has, in the past, written about gods, that, although he does not worship them, he likes to know they are there. “Frailty, human though it may be, interests me less.” Nothing, of course, could more clearly set him apart from the confessional. The gods he creates—more aptly called heroes—are those people who flash across the personal universe, larger than life, then disappear, literally or figuratively. Some of these, such as the astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Virgil Grissom, and Ed White, became famous; others remained obscure except to their friends, distinguished by their insouciance in the face of danger or their ability to indulge in what Salter calls “a single daring act.” As a young man, the writer found some of these heroes at West Point, where he began as a raw adolescent fresh from a New York City prep school, graduating just as World War II ended. Recollecting those years and the...

(The entire section is 1860 words.)