Don’t Save Anything by James Salter
When James Salter died in 2015, he left behind some of the best American novels of the twentieth century. His 1957 debut, The Hunters, is a harrowing story of the Korean War built from Salter’s own experiences as a fighter pilot (Salter left the military to pursue writing). His 1967 novel A Sport and a Pastime is one of the finest works of erotic fiction in the American canon; set in France in the 1960s, the novel follows a tryst between an American ex-pat and a French girl. Even his final novel, All That Is (2013), showcases a writer at the height of his abilities, rendering the faded mid-century American Dream into a cogent, single volume that would be appropriately shelved alongside the best of John Updike and Philip Roth.
Salter was a master of sentences. His fiction elicits powerful nuances of form and transmission, and shows readers not simply the content of a phrase but the effect of its execution. Like a dreamier Hemingway, Salter’s prose is tight and to the point, but leaves room for memory to flicker and smoke to billow.
Salter also left behind an uncollected bibliography of articles and essays when he died, odds and ends which have just recently been compiled into Don’t Save Anything. Although Salter was notorious for spending years and at times decades working on his novels, Don’t Save Anything shows that Salter managed to publish steadily, taking on assignments for periodicals like LIFE and Rocky Mountain Magazine. While some of the works in this collection are standout, essential texts, such as Salter’s 1975 profile on Vladimir Nabokov in Montreaux, others, like a strangely tone-deaf two-page takedown of Bill Clinton published in 1998 in The New Yorker, read like Salter trying to pay the bills while working on more important projects.
Readers of Salter’s oeuvre will find an obvious correlation between Don’t Save Anything’s highlights and the author’s published works: many short essays and columns share the same subjects as his celebrated novels, and these pieces, not coincidentally, are the best in the collection. There are some great articles on rock climbing and skiing (which overlap with Salter’s 1979 novel Solo Faces and his screenplay for the 1969 film “Downhill Racer”); The 1979 LIFE article “The Rock and the Hard Place”, for example, rhapsodizes rock climbing in three perfect sentences: “Climbing is more than a sport. It is an entry into myth. For those irresistibly drawn to it, it becomes a life, and there is always a pack of dazzling new climbers biting at the tails of those who have gone before.” There are beautiful texts on West Point (“The First Woman Graduate”) and Salter’s time in the Air Force (“Passionate Falsehoods”) which harken back to the era of The Hunters. “Passionate Falsehoods” drifts from Salter’s life as a pilot to his career as a screenwriter, and culminates with some exquisite passages on writing from personal experience:
“To write of people thoroughly is to destroy them, use them up. I suppose this is true of experience as well — in describing a world, you extinguish it and in any recollection much is reduced to ruin. Things are captured and at the same time drained of life, never to shimmer or give back light again.”
This passage connects beautifully to the collection’s title, which is advice Salter frequently gave his students, imploring them to use their best ideas as they come. There are moments of staggering wisdom throughout Don’t Save Anything, quietly nestled among familiar stories.
All this is to say that Salter was a man with a particular set of interests, and his casual writing is best when he stays within his wheelhouse. Things get problematic when he veers away from these familiar touchstones. His political writing is at once haughty and listless, and his essay “Men and Women”, essentially on the difference between the two genders, should have remained uncollected. In “Words’ Worth”, Salter takes potshots at Maya Angelou, Tom Clancy, and Tony Kushner, asking if they “pass” for writers, “what hope do words have?” These texts ultimately discredit Salter’s greatness and reduce him to something closer to a petty intellectual.
As a portrait of James Salter, Don’t Save Anything is revealing to a fault. The occasionally repetitive content shows Salter playing frequently to his own strengths. While that’s not necessarily a shortcoming, pairing these texts with the occasional left-field dud reveals an unevenness to what was once a tightly controlled body of work.