Jesuachristo, the prose! More than any other writer I have read, Salter could do so much with so little. He has a scalpel-like precision with his prose — it is always just enough, nothing more. Quite a few writers should read Salter if for no other reason than studying how a few simply crafted sentences can say more than endless flowery paragraphs that serve more as literary gymnastics than good writing. The opening chapters of A Sport and a Pastime, where the narrator is travelling via train through the French countryside, read like a Van Gogh painting.
“Canals, rich as jade, pass beneath us, canals in which wide barges lie. The water is green with scum. One could almost write on the surface.
Hayfields in long, rectangular patterns. There are hills now, not very high. Poplars. Empty soccer fields. Montereau — a boy on a bicycle waiting near the station. There are churches with weathervanes. Smalls streams with rowboats moored beneath the trees…. The pattern of fields is passing, some pale as bread, others sea-dark.”
James Salter discusses the relationship between writing and travel from an old Paris Review interview:
INTERVIEWER: Does the travel help your writing?
SALTER: It’s essential for me. There is no situation like the open road, and seeing things completely afresh. I’m used to traveling. It’s not a question of meeting or seeing new faces particularly, or hearing new stories, but of looking at life in a different way. It’s the curtain coming up on another act.I’m not the first person who feels that it’s the writer’s true occupation to travel. In a certain sense, a writer is an exile, an outsider, always reporting on things, and it is part of his life to keep on the move. Travel is natural. Furthermore, many men of ancient times died on the road, and the image is a strong one. Kings of Arabia, when they are buried, are not given great tombs. They are buried on the side of the road beneath ordinary stones. One thing I saw in England long ago struck me and has always stayed with me. I was going to visit someone in a little village, walking from the railway station across the fields, and I saw an old man, perhaps in his seventies, with a pack on his back. He looked to be a vagabond, dignified, somewhat threadbare, marching along with his staff. A dog trotted at his heels. It was an image I thought should be the final one of a life. Traveling on.
It is a sad commentary on the state of the short story when a collection such as this is allowed to go out of print. After all, Dusk and Other Stories did win the PEN/Faulkner award when it was first released in 1989. And this collection did become a textbook for dedicated short story writers — maybe not as popular with the general reading public as Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, but more of an insider’s pick, like the films of Sam Fuller. The sad fact is that I had to read a photocopy of one of the out-of-print editions that someone was gracious enough to loan me.
The main reason short story writers gravitate towards this book is the prose. Short, punchy and poetic. Salter can say more about a character in a few sparsely worded sentences than most writers can in an entire chapter. Salter wasn’t just hacking away at his sentences for pure economy, he was pairing down his prose to its barest bones, leaving only what he felt was utterly necessary. When writing coaches and teachers scribble “show don’t tell” or “don’t over-write” on countless stories, they are trying to turn their protégés into Salter. A character’s actions speak volumes. A few lines of dialogue become an entire biography.