NEW YORK (AP) — James Salter, the prize-winning author acclaimed for his sophisticated, granular prose and sobering insights in “Light Years,” ”A Sport and a Pastime” and other fiction, has died at age 90.
Salter, who had been in good health, collapsed and died Friday while at a gym in Sag Harbor, his wife, Kay Eldredge, told The Associated Press. The cause of his death was not immediately known.
Salter, a lifelong brooder about impermanence and mortality, was the kind of writer whose language exhilarated readers even when relating the most distressing narratives, from the erotic classic “A Sport and a Pastime” to the stories in the 2005 release “Last Night” to the 2013 novel “All That Is.”
Salter, a native of Manhattan, didn’t enjoy great commercial success but was highly admired by critics and such peers as Jhumpa Lahiri, Richard Ford and the late Peter Matthiessen, his friend and longtime neighbor on Long Island. He won the PEN/Faulkner prize for the 1988 collection “Dusk and Other Stories” and received two lifetime achievement honors for short story writing, the Rea Award and the PEN/Malamud prize.
Few authors compared to Salter in economy and style. Lahiri was among those who thought he wrote some of the most perfect sentences in the English language.
“Reading Salter taught me to boil down my writing to its essence,” Lahiri once wrote. “To insist upon the right words, and to remember that less is more. That great art can be wrought from quotidian life.”
Whether the subject was love or war, Salter wondered how we change and how we don’t change, whether there is any connection between our young selves and our older selves. He wrote long enough to watch himself evolve on paper, as if his works comprised a kind of parallel life he simultaneously observed and created.
“If you were the same person in your 40s as you were as a high school sophomore you would be a very strange creation,” he told the AP in 2005.
Salter was born James Horowitz but as a writer became James Salter, a change that “started an entirely new life,” he told the AP. He was an Air Force pilot, a swimming pool salesman and a filmmaker, his credits including the short documentary “Team Team Team” and the feature film “Three,” starring Sam Waterston.
The son of a real estate salesman who had graduated from West Point, Salter recalled in his 1997 memoir, “Burning the Days,” that he was an “obedient” child who was “close to my parents and in awe of my teachers.” He enjoyed reading but only later became serious about it.
Like his father, he attended West Point, and he entered the Army Air Corps. He flew more than 100 missions during the Korean War and resigned from the Air Force as a major in 1957. He found his calling as a writer while serving in the military, reading widely and working on stories. And he found his subject, not just war, which he wrote about in his first two novels, but the whole idea of transience, of bonds formed and then severed.
The year he left the military, he debuted as an author with “The Hunters,” a tough, straightforward novel in the Hemingway tradition that stayed in print even though he found it “a little bit sophomoric.” It was adapted into a 1958 film of the same name, starring Robert Mitchum.
After a second novel, “The Arm of Flesh,” that so dissatisfied him he rewrote it years later as “Cassada,” he was living in Paris, reading exalted short novels such as William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” and crafting a story that would be “licentious but pure,” a book “filled with images of an unchaste world more desirable than our own.”
“A Sport and a Pastime” was a brief, poetic, almost supernaturally sexy novel about a Yale dropout and his French girlfriend. Rejected by several publishers before George Plimpton agreed to release it, in 1967, through The Paris Review.
“There’s no question it was a breakthrough,” Salter told the AP. “Look, by that time I had read (Albert) Camus, I had read (Andre) Gide. I had read writers of greater elegance and greater intellectual sinew than you usually find in American writers.”
“A Sport and a Pastime,” like future Salter works, demonstrated the heights and the limits of sex and love. Paradise is gained, but only for a moment or a series of moments. Relationships break up, people move on.
“What had happened? They had gone off and made love. That isn’t so rare,” he wrote in “A Sport and a Pastime.”
“It’s nothing but a sweet accident, perhaps just the end of illusion. In a sense one can say it’s harmless, but why, then, beneath everything does one feel so apart? Isolated. Murderous, even.”
Salter was married twice and had five children. He worked slowly, publishing only six novels and two story collections, along with his memoir and writings about food and travel.