Monday, August 16, 2010

Burning the Days, by James Salter

You either burn the days or you're burned by them, I suppose—although at some point the wood becomes the fire, the fire the wood, and attempting a distinction is futile. That futility might be what we mean by aging, if we're lucky.

James Salter certainly has burned through his days, as this oddly structured, intensely lyrical memoir demonstrates. He's best known (properly) as the author of two of my favorite post-war novels—A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years (reviewed here). He wrote the screenplay for the icy, piercing Downhill Racer, one of Robert Redford's best films. Before becoming a writer, he graduated West Point and fought in the Korean War as an Air Force fighter pilot.

Also, to his credit, he embraced the post-war possibilities open to an American man: see the world; educate yourself as world citizen; help re-construct, if only by your love, Western Europe; and never cease to admire our country's incomparable landscapes and coincident opportunities.

By all appearances, Salter has known power—been close to it—but never allowed that closeness to ruin him as an artist. In Burning the Days, he evokes the circles of power, the famous faces, with their fantastic, distorted personalities, with intriguing delicacy. He's also had the good sense to fall in love a few times. Anyone who has picked up A Sport and a Pastime already knows how precisely, how lethally he records the flaming choreography of love.

I don't know if it's still possible for an American man to burn the days as Salter did. There are obstacles on all sides—foremost among them our post-Reagan isolationism and moralistic fervor, our proud Crawford TX stupidity, our decadent laziness. Reading this book, I couldn't help but lament what we're becoming (which is another way of saying, What I'm becoming). This book allows us the secondary pleasure of envying Salter—which is an important pleasure, as it means that something essential is not yet forgotten.

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