22 June 2013

Close to the Sea

James Salter put out a book called All That Is. He was profiled in The New Yorker, reviewed in Harper's and, better than all that, he made me cry (with a little help from Lydia Davis).

His sales figures are the final proof that the American reading public is imbecilic. Nick Paumgarten gives the hard numbers: 3,000 copies of A Sport and a Pastime (and a $3,000 advance!) and 8,000 copies of Light Years. Partially out of disgust that two of the best books of the century were so overlooked, Salter says he wanted to get away from the "great-writer-of-sentences" thing. Outside of James Franco's continued existence it's hard to think of a more depressing facet of the literary world. Perhaps Salter will break through with a makeup Pulitzer or National Book Award and I'll be able to pretend it's been given for his earlier work (much the same way I pretend Jennifer Lawrence won an Oscar for Winter's Bone and Cary Grant received statues for any of a dozen films).

More than A Sport and a Pastime or Light Years, All That Is is chapters, self-contained and often timestamped (in his work written in the 60s you have to guess the year by the make of the cars, in the new book he tells us when Kennedy was shot). With a more fragmented approach, Salter has joined his contemporaries in the novel form--even in the best new books, I'm reading flashing chapters of greatness. There's Jonathan Dee's opening to The Privileges or Jennifer Egan's "Safari" chapter in A Visit from the Goon Squad.

So All That Is resembles the stories in Dusk and Last Night more than his other novels but it's okay--Salter has written some of his most gorgeous things in short fiction. He's written "Am Strande von Tanger" (how is it that I can read whatever I want from The Paris Review without logging in and nothing from The New Yorker?). The closing paragraph is as good as it gets, the audacious description of Nico is fresh each time:

"She has small breasts and large nipples. Also, as she herself says, a rather large behind. Her father has three secretaries. Hamburg is close to the sea."

Like Dee in the Harper's review, I have a tendency to laugh at Salter's audacity. This paragraph makes me exhale a single "hah!" like a small dog's bark. It's the end of a long run from the third sentence of the story, the great avenues pointing towards the sea. It is a brilliant away goal at the Camp Nou that Cristiano Ronaldo does not care to have scored (he's a little sad). It gives me the pleasure you get from seeing a cliff diver jump from 50 feet in the air and barely ripple the water.

People talk about all the sex in Salter but the movement of the prose is most erotic. In All That Is Salter's great sentences are more measured--at 87 his speech is more breathless than his writing (listen to the quaver in "Break It Down"). The book is mostly Philip Bowman's adventures in publishing and attractive women, with more and less successful chapter-long detours into the lives of secondary characters (I would put the tawdry tales of his co-editor Eddins at the low end and the drunken dinner of Mrs. Armour at the high).

It's a blessing that Salter returns to "España" for a chapter. Bowman's countrywide mistressing begins in Madrid under bright skies, severe shadows and "sun dark workers" (his English lover, Enid, is blessed with one of Salter's classic (by which I mean terrible) character names). He finds more darkness in the Prado and in Lorca, whose banned book must be pulled from the back of a bookstore.

The writing is like black and white photography, sharp even in low light. The couple steps into a cobbled alley of policemen and ominous guitars--ominous for how much you'll love them--and gypsy handclaps like gunshots.

"The woman was singing with even greater intensity amid the relentless chords, the savage, tight beat of the heels, the silver, the black, the man's lean body bent like an S, the dogs trotting in darkness near the houses, the water running, the sound of trees."

Definitive Salter: the whole story--the whole country--in a sentence.

And, of course, a couple of paragraphs later Bowman fucks Enid like one of those running dogs. He says she is not breathing in her sleep, just as Nico wasn't breathing that morning in Barcelona 45 years earlier. "The word for naked in Spanish was desnudo. It was the same in any language, she remarked."

They make their way to Sevilla, Granada, following the paths of bullfighters and landing finally on a house where he might live with her, deeply shadowed under the total sun. But "with some women you are never sure," and a moment later Bowman's on a airplane back to New York, gliding over the white statuary and empty gravel paths of the Retiro.  

In much the same way I ran out of pages in All That Is. I fear James Salter's death, as so many people are here to bury him now. And then: "The destruction of the finest is natural, it confirms them."