At the table with James Salter.
“To revisit the past was like constantly crossing some Bergschrund,” James Salter writes in the introduction to his 1997 memoir, “a deep chasm between what my life had been before I changed it completely and what it was afterwards.” As it did through his life, an ineludible divide runs through Salter’s work. The same man who gave us great novels and stories of sport, of war and deprivation, produced some of the twentieth century’s most sumptuous meditations on domestic life, on the rituals at the heart of bonding. To read him in both modes is to pace the fullness of Salter’s emotional life—it is akin to entering a room full of people after completing some feat of endurance, a vow of silence or a rigorous fast, and trying to hear every word. What unites Salter’s oeuvre—more than his triumphs of style, the peculiar manipulations of perspective, and the verbless descriptive clauses—is his preoccupation with meals and all that they represent, all they can give and all they can take away.
In 1957, with his first book already published, Salter left the Air Force to become the novelist that he knew he was. As his identity was transformed—from fighter pilot to fiction writer, from that of struggle within the military complex to the isolation he encountered outside of it—so were his novels and stories. Food’s role in them increasingly became a metric for the emotional lives of his characters, who were either driven by the rejection of home or by some elaborate performance that kept the idea of home intact. The dinner table, Salter understood, was the perfect stage for the frailty of our relationships—how we present ourselves to others, how crucial to our sense of self are the recollections of the friends who saw us become the people we were. A much-cited quotation from Light Years perhaps most perfectly encapsulates his feelings about life in the air as a pilot and on the ground as a family man: “Life is weather. Life is meals.” Read More