James Salter, author of A Sport And A Pastime and The Hunters, has died aged 90. Salter, regarded as underrated by many and untouched by widespread fame, died yesterday at a gym near his home in New York, BBC News reports. The Independent reports that Salter died during a session of physiotherapy.
Salter was a Korean War veteran who had served as a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force, flying the F-86 Sabre (pictured below). James’ first novel, The Hunters, explored some of his wartime experiences. Salter’s book, published in 1956, became the basis for a 1958 film of the same name, starring Robert Mitchum. After the success of his novel, James left the Air Force in 1957, 15 years after enlisting.
Salter was adored by critics and writers alike, winning the PEN/Faulkner award in 1988 for his short story collection Dusk and Other Stories. One of the tales from that collection also went on to become the basis for the 1996 film Boys.
James’ tight, sparse prose drew comparisons to Hemingway, with similar subject matters being shared between the two writers. War and human experience were prime topics for both Salter and Hemingway. Both men had gone to war young, and been crudely and irreparably shaped by what they’d experienced. Speaking to BBC News two years ago, Salter explained that having served in the Korean War was something of a test of masculinity.
“Having been to war satisfies a certain classical definition of manhood. To have seen war is some kind of pillar of manhood, and I felt that at the time.”
Despite his critical acclaim, Salter never found widespread success. Critics praised James’ books readily, with his erotic account of a relationship between a young American and a French girl, A Sport and A Pastime being glowingly described by the New York Times Book Review after a re-release in 1985.
“Of living novelists, none has produced a book I admire more than A Sport and a Pastime, by James Salter. In its peculiar compound of lucid surface and dark interior, it’s as nearly perfect as any American fiction I know.”
His last novel, entitled All That Is was published in 2013, and even this late in his life, it was clear that age had not weathered Salter’s writing chops.
“Though it’s less than 300 pages long, the sharpness and abundance of observed detail give it an epic quality.” James Lasdun said in his review for the Guardian. In his five-star review of the novel for the Telegraph, David Annand called it a “record of a time when it was possible still to be a hero in America.”
It seems that despite the adoration of critics and writers alike, James’ lack of widespread sales meant he never truly felt accepted as a writer. He once said as much, speaking to the New York Times.
“You can’t be admitted to the ranks of writers of importance unless you have sales.”
Perhaps now is the time when new readers will discover Salter, read his works, and explore the experiences he describes. He may, with time, come to be regarded as a literary Van Gogh.
Like Hemingway, James Salter also considered travel to be of extreme importance, calling it “essential,” and “the writer’s true occupation.“
— Jason Hiner (@jasonhiner) June 15, 2015
“I’m not the first person who feels that it’s the writer’s true occupation to travel. In a certain sense, a writer is an exile, an outsider, always reporting on things, and it is part of his life to keep on the move… I saw an old man, perhaps in his seventies, with a pack on his back. He looked to be a vagabond, dignified, somewhat threadbare, marching along with his staff. A dog trotted at his heels. It was an image I thought should be the final one of a life. Traveling on.”
I can think of no more fitting a way to end this article than with that quote. Wherever James is now, there is one thing for certain. Despite a lack of widespread readership in life, the passage of time lends itself well to discovery. James may become a very different kind of vagabond. A vagabond of the soul, traveling from reader to reader as they discover his works. It seems a fitting way for James Salter to live on.