State Author bangs the drum as noisily as he can

Staff writer

At age 72, author James Salter is still learning new tricks.

A handful of years ago, on a tiny frozen pond in Aspen, Colo., where he spends winters, Salter taught his son, Theo, to play hockey.

"We used a tuna can and two brooms,'' Salter recalled last week.

The boy is now 13 and plays on a hockey team.

"I'm still trying to learn more about hockey myself, so I can keep up in the father-son hockey games,'' said Salter, who chases his son down expert ski trails. Snowboarding may be next for dad. Tennis, swimming and running are already part of the dance between father and son.

In his muscular prose and in his rugged life, Salter has always been a man's man. West Point graduate. Air Force jet fighter pilot in the Korean War. Novelist. Lover of women. Screenwriter. Epicurean. World traveler.

He looks a good decade younger than his biological years. But weathered skin on a face as craggy as the Shawangunk Mountains handsome in its raw-boned way, as Lee Marvin's or Robert Mitchum's were announces this is a man who has lived large and lived long.

One more chord

In his recently published, highly acclaimed memoir, "Burning The Days: Recollection'' (Random House, $24), Salter writes that he admires men who have grabbed for the gusto, even if their reach exceeds their grasp. He rages against lives of quiet desperation. He likes a life that makes some noise. "It has not been all tinkling; there have been grand chords,'' Salter writes of his own.

"I'd like to strike one more grand chord that's not sour,'' Salter said by phone from his Aspen home during a recent interview. "Writers really don't retire, you know. They have to be taken out and shot.''

Or, taken out and feted.

Such will be Salter's fate today when he receives the New York State Edith Wharton Citation of Merit as State Author. Sharon Olds will receive the New York State Walt Whitman Citation of Merit as State Poet at the same ceremony. Gov. George Pataki is scheduled to present the awards, which carry a $10,000 prize, at a ceremony in the Cultural Education Center at the Empire State Plaza.

Salter and Olds join the rose, sugar maple, garnet, bluebird, beaver, brook trout, apple, milk et al. among the official objects and emblems of the Empire State.

"I consider it a great compliment to be associated with the beaver,'' Salter said. "It's as good as being called a writer's writer.''


Through six novels and story collections, Salter has never gained large commercial success. He defines the dreaded term "mid-list author,'' a euphemism for meager sales.

All the while, Salter has earned a reputation as an unrivaled stylist who inspired awe (and not a little jealousy, perhaps) from well-regarded literary novelists. He carves a sentence with the precision and purity of a cabinetmaker cutting wood.

There are turns of phrase in "Burning the Days'' that are so achingly fine they make the reader's eyes well up. There is this coda to Salter's bittersweet experience with Hollywood: "There remains, though, in the case of those years in the movies, a kind of silky pollen that clings to the fingertips and brings back what was once pleasurable too pleasurable, perhaps the lights dancing on dark water as in the old prints, the sound of voices, laughter, music, all faint, alluring, far off.''

John Irving called Salter's prose "rare and stunning.'' Peter Matthiessen said, "There is scarcely a writer alive who could not learn from his passion and precision of language.''

In Vanity Fair, critic James Wolcott described Salter as "the most underrated underrated writer.''

The State Author award will begin to devalue that description.

"I felt astonishment when I was told of the award, followed by pleasure and gratification,'' Salter said. "I feel quite distinguished to be among the group of State Authors. I think I'm starting to outdistance that 'underrated' label.''

Essential need

In Aspen, Salter writes in an old cabin recently renovated by an architect with white walls, cedar plank ceiling, windows and pools of natural light.

"It feels a little bit like being on a sailboat,'' Salter said, and his time there is spent trying to make his words reach and tack like a sloop on the sea.

Salter's writing is still evolving and growing, his craft challenged by writing the memoir. "Something urges one to write,'' he said. "That urging, that desire to write about something is quenched a little when you do it. If you don't write it down, what becomes of it? In most men, there must be something essential in life and writing fills that need like nothing else for me.''

That literary desire hasn't flagged in 40 years. His first novel, "The Hunters,'' was published in 1957 and told the story of a young Korean War pilot. It cut close to the bone and spoke honestly about wartime experiences.

He wrote it in secret from his Air Force colleagues. That debut work of fiction also ended one career for James Horowitz and introduced the nom de plume of James Salter.

"I had a whole list of last names that used the same A and E vowels as James,'' Salter (nee Horowitz) said. "I wanted two syllables for the rhythm. James Salter had a faintly biblical sound to it, so I impulsively took it.''

Family life

Salter, son of an engineer who developed real estate, grew up in a wealthy Jewish family on Manhattan's Upper East Side. But he has never written from that perspective and seemed distant about his Jewishness.

He said anti-Semitism was only a vague notion at West Point for him. "Naturally, some people are not going to like you, but I never felt anything toward me that was organized or of any real consequence,'' Salter said. "Things weren't more difficult for me than anyone else.''

Neither his first nor his second wife is Jewish. Grown children from his previous marriage Nina, chief of acquisitions and senior editor for Calmann-Levy, a French publisher in Paris; James, a builder in Montana; Claude, a sportswear designer in Aspen were not raised as Jews. And he does not impart any firm sense of his Jewish roots to his son Theo.

"My children are in that famous process of being absorbed into a religious netherworld,'' he said.

Salter, a native Manhattanite and former lower Hudson River Valley resident, now spends spring, summer and fall at a cottage in Bridgehampton, Long Island ("about $400,000 from the water'') with his wife, Kay, and their son, Theo.

Movie money

Salter has never regretted his decision to quit his military career for that of writer. "The Hunters'' received solid reviews, produced modest numbers for the publisher, but was sold to the movies and got made (starring Robert Mitchum).

"I didn't want to sell it to the movies, but my agents convinced me and God bless them,'' Salter said.

Salter's cut of the movie money was $13,500 a year for four years. That was plenty in the 1950s. He found a little house on the Hudson River just below the Tappan Zee Bridge in a little shoreline community called Grand View. He put the Air Force behind him. A writer was born.

Salter knows Albany mostly through the novels of William Kennedy, whom he met in Aspen in the 1970s at a party for Hunter Thompson. Salter doesn't remember much about that gathering.

"I grew up in Manhattan and all I knew of Albany was that the night boat went up there,'' Salter said. "Later, I would drive past Albany on the way to ski in New England. Until I read Kennedy, I never dreamed the city was so fascinating,'' he said. "Through my reading, I've found it to be an unexpectedly vivid and complex city.''

He won't be just passing through this time. He'll stop as State Author. Listen for the grand chords.

"I won't need assistance getting up and down from the stage,'' Salter said. "My piano still seems to be in tune. I'm getting ready to write a new novel. I'll have to roll up my sleeves and see what I can do.''

The State Author and State Poet awards presentation will be at 4 p.m. Tuesday at Clark Auditorium, Concourse Level, Cultural Education Center, Empire State Plaza. Reception to follow. By invitation or prior arrangement. If interested, call the Writers Institute at 442-5620.

Copyright 1998, Capital Newspapers Division
of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.

Copyright 1997, Times Union, Albany, N.Y.

James Salter