The writers that matter to us matter for reasons that are entirely personal. It’s usually not the writer’s biography or even subject matter that makes his or her stories meaningful, but the writer’s voice, a literary style translating intimately in our ears, like confessions.
James Salter, who died yesterday, mattered to me. Obituaries are already calling him a "writer's writer," meaning much loved but not widely read, which is perhaps overstated. After all, his works are in print. He won awards. He was celebrated more than many, if not enough for those who believed he was one of the greats among us. Maybe he will be taught as one now, after his death, when things tend to get most interesting for writers. Sometimes, it’s only after we know that a voice has been silenced that we can fully hear it. Why is that? Are we more entranced by the echoes in the canyon than by the original shout?
Salter was a writer who cared perhaps most of all about desire. He kept finding new ways to express the pull of sex and affection, mostly between married men and women and the people they had affairs with.
One story of his I love, called “Give,” stands a bit outside his usual realm. In it, Salter—presumably heterosexual—writes with aching beauty about one man’s infatuation with another.
“Give,” from the collection “Last Night,” tells of a poet named Des whom the male narrator folds into his family as a friend to his wife and a playmate to their son. Here are the first impressions we get of Des; we don’t at this point in the story know that the men are more than friends, though later it’s abundantly clear that this rapturous description could only come from the gaze of a lover:
Des was barefoot, I noticed. It was early for him to be up. He often slept until noon and then managed to slip gracefully into the rhythm of the household. That was his talent, to live as he liked, almost without concern, to live as if he would reach the desired end one way or another and not be bothered by whatever came between. …
He was a poet, of course. He even looked like a poet, intelligent, lank. He’d won the Yale prize when he was twenty-five and went on from there. When you pictured him, it was wearing a gray herringbone jacket, khaki pants, and for some reason sandals. Doesn’t fit together, but a lot of things about him were like that. Born in Galveston, ROTC in college, and even married while an undergraduate, although what became of that wife he never clearly explained. His real life came after that, and he had lived it ever since, teaching sometimes in community classes, travelling to Greece and Morocco, living there for a period, having a breakdown, and through it all writing the poem that had made his name. I read the poem, a third of it anyway, standing stunned in a bookshop in the Village. I remember the afternoon, cloudy and quiet, and I remember, too, almost leaving myself, the person I was, the ordinary way I felt about things, my perception of—there’s no other word for it—the depth of life, and above all the thrill of successive lines. The poem was an aria, jagged and unending. Its tone was what set it apart—written as if from the shades. There lay the delta, there the burning arms…was the way it began, and immediately I felt it was not about rivers uncoiling but about desire. … Lines that seemed unconnected gradually became part of a confession that had at its center rooms in the burning heat of August where something has taken place, clearly sexual, but it is also the vacant streets of rural Texas, roads, forgotten friends, the slap of hands on rifle slings and forked pennants limp at parades. There are condoms, sun-faded cars, soiled menus with misspellings, a kind of pyre on which he had laid his life. That was why he had seemed so pure—he had given all. Everyone lies about their lives, but he had not lied about his. He had made of it a noble lament, through it always running this thing you have had, that you will always have, but can never have.
There’s always something alluded to but absent from the emotional lives of the men in Salter’s stories—that thing “you will always have, but can never have.” He wrote of long friendships between men who avoid intimacy, triangulating their feelings via women who matter less to them than they do to each other, as in the short story “American Express.”
In “Give,” Salter saved one of the most purely romantic passages in his work for a man unexpectedly and unwittingly falling in love with another man through his poetry. But this reveals something I have always felt about Salter himself: the writing itself is seductive, it creates my love for it, it earns my devotion. No surprise that the person who first introduced me to his work was someone I had fallen deeply for, himself a weaver of fiction.
The death of a literary artist is always a loss, the knowledge there’ll be no new stories, no further confessions, from this voice you treasure. The words you have are all the words you’ll get. Now you must listen for the echoes.