In early 1990 I had the pleasure, honor, really, of hosting James Salter when he visited the University of Utah. I remember the date mostly because Buster Douglas had just shocked the world, the boxing world, by knocking out the previously thought to be indestructible, Mike Tyson. Douglas had been a 42-1 underdog and we were still talking about it weeks later.
Salter arrived from Aspen by train and travelled with a thermos of pre-mixed martinis.
When I tell the story of his visit I usually tell how David Wright and I took him out to dinner at what was then probably the swankest Salt Lake City restaurant, The New Yorker. Salter made David and me nervous by commandeering the wine list and ordering, what to us then was, an unseemingly expensive wine at fifty dollars a bottle. Then another bottle, then another. We were graduate students: many were the things that could make us nervous. We were risking being late for his reading. Also, we doubted the university would reimburse us for the wine. Luckily, the person who was to sign off on the reimbursement was Larry Levis who didn’t blink as he signed and, in hindsight, wouldn’t have done so even if he had noticed the extravagant amount. Levis, sigh.
What I want to tell you now is that when Salter signed my copy of Solo Faces, a book I continue to much admire, he turned first to page 132 and changed a typo: against the left hand margin of a left page was the word “here.” Salter added at “t” in the margin to make it “there.” Then he wrote out the sentence from memory in his inscription to me when he signed the book:
“There is something greater than the life of cities, greater than money and possessions; there is a manhood that can never be taken away.”
I’m glad I looked in the book for the typo, because I hadn’t remembered that I kept there my hand-written introduction to him that I read to the audience that night in 1990. This was the first time I had publicly introduced anyone of his stature and I remember the paper fluttering as my hand shook with nerves. Here it is, as I wrote it:
“The faculty and staff of the creative writing program would like to thank you all for being here and to thank James Salter for reading and speaking to us this evening.
“Mr. Salter’s first book appeared in 1957. His most recent book, Dusk and Other Stories published in 1988 by North Point Press was awarded the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, certainly one of the highest honors a writer may be awarded in this country. One of the stories from that collection, “American Express, ” was included in The Best American Short Stories of 1988, edited by Shannon Ravenal, and is currently being produced for television by PBS.
“Mr. Salters’ reputation has grown quietly and elegantly, according to Esquire. His best known books are two very fine novels, A Sport and a Pastime, first published in 1967 and Light Years, 1976, both available from North Point Press. Mr. Salter speaks self-deprecatingly about another novel, Solo Faces, which I promise you is far and away the best portrayal and use of mountain climbing in a work of fiction.
“When I asked Mr. Salter if there was any particular thing I should include in my introduction, he asked only that I not use hyperbole. My problem is just the opposite: I can’t find praise enough to describe the experience of reading his work.
“Mr. Salter once cited a passage by de Laclos, author of Les Liasons Dangereuses to describe how he feels about writing: “To Write, What a Marvelous Thing!”
“It’s somehow comforting to know that the pleasure he takes in writing is somewhat commensurate to the pleasure one derives from reading his work, because to read his work is indeed a very marvelous thing, as you will all learn, or be reminded of, this evening.
“I give you James Salter.”
During his visit he read one of my stories and was complimentary. He had remained interested in climbing, thinking that Solo Faces never really got to the heart of Gary Hemming upon whom it was loosely based. He was almost regretful about that. I urged him to think of the book as completely independent from Hemming’s story, but he said he had a hard time doing that. He gave me some advice about my own story that has been helpful: “You’re showing off here. It’s unnecessary.” I’ve watched for that in my work ever since.
His son, also James Salter, lived in Park City and asked me privately if Solo Faces was any good, because he had heard climbers speak poorly of it. I had to explain that a) climbers didn’t really accept writing from anyone that wasn’t a known member of their own tribe, and b) the concept of what is literary was beyond most of them anyway. James the younger was grateful to hear this. We made plans several times to ski Deer Valley together, but never managed to make it happen. Some time before I left Salt Lake City for good I heard he had moved to Taos.
Now James Salter has left us, last week at the age of 90, and I am about the age he was when we met in 1990. Salter wrote “Life passes into pages if it passes into anything.” And now his has.