- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
James Salter's savvy, bittersweet new book is a happy reminder that the word memoir hasn't always been synonymous with "woozy self-revelation." Salter, author of the novels A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years, distills the essence of his life—his childhood in Manhattan, his years at West Point and in the Air Force, his days in Paris and Hollywood and Tokyo with friends like John Huston and Irwin Shaw—without massaging his own tortured ego. (He's the anti-Kathryn Harrison.) On the surface, in fact, Burning the Days is much more concerned with others Salter has known—a kaleidoscopic assortment of friends, lovers, heroes, villains—than it is with the author's own experience. "To remember only yourself," Salter writes, "is like worshipping a dust mote."
Salter is not a silky stylist. His prose lumbers, like an outsized cargo plane, into the air. But once you're in synch with his leisurely cadences, it begins to dawn on you what a remarkable book this is—a lovely and expertly crafted elegy for Paris, for youth, for flight, for food, for women, for life itself. As a kid, Salter was pampered—"I was a city child, pale, cared for, unaware," he writes—and he arrived at West Point both vain and "spoiled by poetry." After a rocky start, he fell in love not with the military, but with the sense of honor and duty it inculcated in him. Salter later flew fighter planes in Korea, and many of the book's most vivid passages evoke the joys and terrors of flying. ("It was a baptism," he writes about one particularly harrowing flight.) Burning the Days reads almost nothing like a typical writer's memoir: There isn't a lot of talk about Salter's own literary ambitions or his passionate urge to write. In fact, he devotes more space to his years in the film world—he wrote several screenplays and directed a film called Three in the early 1970s—and his friendships with men like Robert Redford and Roman Polanski.
By all accounts (except, perhaps, his own), Salter wasn't a bad-looking guy, and his abiding passion for women is one of the book's signal themes. "Nature is ravishing, but the women are in the cities," he says at one point, explaining his fondness for Paris and Rome. He recounts, in poetic detail, moments with many of his lovers—including, on film sets, notes from "the wives of leading men, bored and unattended to, that said in one way or another, Call me." There's also a wonderful moment when an Italian woman explains to Salter that Bologna is famous not merely for food but for fellatio: "All the various forms," she explains to him, "are called by the names of pasta," and she goes on to list several. ("Rigate" sounds like it might hurt.) Some readers may detect a whiff of sexism in Salter's old-fashioned brand of masculinity. The things he prizes—including "soundness of body" and "a beautiful wife"—can make him sound like a trophy collector. And you may find yourself wondering where Salter's own wife and children were during all of his gleeful tomcatting; they barely get a mention. But it's impossible to read Burning the Days without feeling the glow of a life vigorously lived. Salter's days weren't burned while he wasn't looking. He lit them himself.