No Fine Writing: Remembering James Salter

By Kevin Rabalais

For several decades, there were rumors of a new novel. James Salter hadn’t published one in more than thirty years, and now he was approaching the age of ninety. Salter’s readers, and also the legion of writers who admire his elegant prose style, hoped that he would finish another. Other books, miraculous books, had followed his most recent, Solo Faces (1979): two story collections, including the 1989 PEN/Faulkner Award-winning Dusk, and Burning the Days, his “recollection” that belongs on the shelf beside great literary memoirs such as Out of Africa and Speak, Memory. But when conversation turned to those rumors of a novel-in-progress, a flash of passion sparked across the faces of fans.

In the fall of 2010, I heard Salter mention the book that I and so many others wanted to read. We were talking about his beloved France, the setting of A Sport and a Pastime. I would be leaving in a few months to teach in the Loire Valley. Salter spoke of France with the affection of an exile. He named restaurants and wines, he noted the quality of light, the current of rivers. He turned to his wife, Kay, and suggested that they go back again soon.

“But not until after Thanksgiving,” she said. “You have a deadline.”

Salter nodded. “I’m finishing a novel,” he said.

Nearly three years later, I found myself in the Salters’ Bridgehampton, New York, home. It was the publication day of All That Is. The long-awaited novel now had covers. Boxes of finished copies had recently arrived from Salter’s U.S. publisher, Knopf. They lay open on the kitchen floor. He raised a copy to his pallid eyes. The novel had been in the works, off and on, for thirty-four years. He had lost the original notes, had started, stalled, and begun again. Now it was here, this novel that in the intervening years I’ve read three times, convinced that it surpasses all the decades of expectation.

Salter died two years after the publication of All That Is, the novel that brought him the international fame he craved and deserved throughout his writing life. He would have turned ninety-one today.

Recently, an editor asked me to write about Salter, suggesting that I focus on two books that exemplify his body of work. After weeks of rereading and struggling with the criteria, I made the selections: for its encapsulation of his various lives (fighter pilot, novelist, screenwriter, to name a few), I selected Burning the Days, a memoir that reads like a novel, with a great cast of characters who come and go, often taking center stage. I also chose All That Is.

I could, of course, just as easily have picked A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years. Or perhaps one of those two novels (before the publication of All That Is, Salter believed they were the works for which he would be remembered) and Dusk or Last Night. But then what about Solo Faces, his novel of mountain climbing, a book that has never received the readership it deserves? Salter originally wrote this story as a screenplay for Robert Redford. The two had worked together on the film Downhill Racer. When it became clear that the new project wouldn’t get made, Salter’s publisher suggested that he rework the screenplay as a novel.

Solo Faces follows Vernon Rand (the character Salter had in mind for Redford), a climber with great potential who has “defected” from the sport. When we meet the loner Rand in the opening pages of the novel, he is working construction in Los Angeles. A fellow worker slips from the church rooftop they are repairing. Rand saves him much as he later saves several climbers on the great mountains of Europe.

“A kind of distinction surrounded him, of being marked for a different life,” Salter writes of Rand. “That distinction meant everything.”

Soon after the incident on the rooftop, Rand begins climbing again in California. Chamonix, however, draws him. He travels there and reconnects with an old climbing partner.

“It seemed he was touching not a face but something on the order of a planet, too vast to be imagined and at the same time, somehow, aware of his presence,” Salter writes of one of Rand’s first climbs in the French Alps.

After Light Years received two negative reviews in The New York Times, Salter made a note to himself before he started Solo Faces: “No fine writing.” In the previous book, he had been accused of relying on lyrical prose to fuel his narrative. The sentences of Solo Faces—shorter, less poetic than in Light Years—read as though they have been carved out of stone. But we’re talking about the author of A Sport and a Pastime here, and so despite Salter’s pursuit of “no fine writing,” readers will still find themselves struck by something in nearly every paragraph, as when he writes of the Dru, one of the mythic climbs of Europe:

Dark, with black lines weeping down it, a Babylonian temple smashed by centuries, its pillars and passages sheared away, the huge fragments floating through thousands of feet of air to explode on the lower slabs, legendary, unclimbable for decades: the Dru.

Salter always has the ability to pick out the single detail and mark it, indelible, in the reader’s mind. There’s something for us to learn—something to feel and fondle, as Nabokov said that good prose allows us to do—on every page. In Rand’s first days in Chamonix, for instance, Salter has a minor character point out the col de Rognon, a low ridge of Mont Blanc: “There were greater peaks behind but this one seemed to stand out despite its smaller size, like a menacing face in the crowd upon which one’s gaze happens to fall.”

After he makes a dramatic rescue, Rand becomes an icon, a darling of the media. He attracts women, including a dazzling Parisienne and a young shop assistant in Chamonix. After her boss asks Rand if he speaks French, she suggests that when you look like that, you don’t have to speak at all. Indeed, Rand’s silences fill this novel about determination and the incomprehension of what drives us.

Rand’s seeks the quietude of great mountain peaks. He achieves fame in his sport only to find the attention distasteful. And yet he must continue to climb, uncertain if he will ever understand his need to pursue this life. All the while, however, he remains convinced that in order to sustain himself he must go on. It’s a haunting novel, epic in its 240 pages. It’s also unlike anything else in Salter’s body of work.


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