The writer James Salter is in the extraordinary position of having become very famous for not being famous at all.
This week, at the British launch for his book, All That Is, literary London milled about the ballroom at Chandos House in Marylebone, drinking dry champagne and marvelling at the book's instant and overwhelming success. Many of those in the crowd were journalists paying court. A large table was stacked high with reissued copies of his previously out-of-print backlist. Two editors from competing glossy magazines bantered good-naturedly over who ran their Salter interview first. "How was I supposed to know he was going to be bigger than Daft Punk?" one asked.
Cocktail chatter lulled when the head of Picador U.K. stood up in order to lavish praise upon the 87-year-old American, calling the novel – Salter's first in 34 years – "marvellous," "exquisite," and "the very best work of fiction I've read in a long, long time."
But when the author himself took the microphone, looking like a slightly more weather-beaten version of Thurston Howell, the millionaire on Gilligan's Island, in his navy blazer and khaki trousers, the room fell silent. "Well, that leaves me with absolutely nothing positive to say," he said in his thin, flatly accented voice – a voice at odds with the weighty baritone of his presence.
The crowd exploded with laughter, and Salter paused, warily eyeing the rapturous faces before him, as if to acknowledge that the joke had not been that funny. "Since this novel was published, I've already signed more books than I've previously sold. There is the general idea that I've lived and worked in obscurity. No one will think that after this."
It was, everyone agreed, a perfect speech.
This was ironic (or perhaps just entirely fitting), given that Salter has spent much of his later career trying to shift the mantle of stylistic perfection. "I wanted to get past the great-writer-of-sentences thing," he once wrote in a letter to a friend. "I don't care about that at this stage." Naturally, this hasn't stopped his publisher from touting the praise Salter has gotten from Richard Ford, another American heavyweight: "Sentence for sentence, Salter is the master."
Nor did it stanch the flow of extravagant praise from writers far richer, more famous and more prize-laden than Salter. Julian Barnes calls the novel "consistently elegant"; Edmund White, "a masterpiece"; Tim O'Brien, "the best novel I've read in years." John Irving declares it a work of "sufficient love, heartbreak, vengeance, identity confusion, longing and euphoria of language to have satisfied Shakespeare."
According to a recent profile in The New Yorker, Salter is "the writer's writer's writer," an author who "is not famous," but "is venerated for his sentence-making, his observational powers, his depictions of sex and valour, and a pair of novels that, in spite of sales and obscure subject matter, have more than a puncher's chance at permanence."
The insider's pick is a mantle Salter has admitted he finds somewhat discomfiting, smacking as it does of a patronizing sense of having been lost, then rediscovered, by his more successful peers. "James Salter: The Forgotten Hero of American Literature," was a headline that recently ran in the Observer.
Like it or not, all this veneration from high places has rendered Salter's career bigger than the sum of its parts. He has become the altar of literary obscurity at which more "discovered" authors pay homage. His advanced age only adds to the sense of sage authenticity.
In any case, the praise is well-deserved. For the committed reader of fiction, his is the sort of instantly recognizable talent in whose hands one can completely relax. From the opening line of All That Is ("All night in darkness the water sped past.") I knew I was going somewhere excellent and entirely new, in the company of a masterful driver. Salter's work has a satisfying sting and fizz, like peroxide poured on a cut. It hurts, but it also clarifies. For all the pain it brings, you know you are better for it.
All That Is tells the story of Philip Bowman, a Second World War naval officer who later finds professional success and sexual gratification in the Manhattan publishing industry. As his marriage unravels and an affair overwhelms him, we are privy to his agonizing web of love and ambition – the twin thematic obsessions at the heart of Salter's work.
Originally born James Horowitz, Salter adopted his pen name while in the U.S. Air Force, to avoid the scrutiny of his colleagues and superiors. Soon the pseudonym became his true identity, and he quit his career as a pilot to write fiction full-time. To date, he has published six novels; two collections of stories; and a handful of screenplays, which he dismisses as "trash." His final screenplay, which was commissioned and then turned down by Robert Redford, became the story behind his 1979 novel Solo Faces, often hailed as the greatest-ever work of fiction about mountain climbing. For all his supposed obscurity, Salter has had, according to one commentator, "a career that Hemingway would envy."
Salter, who is married to the journalist and playwright Kay Eldredge, splits his time between the Hamptons and Aspen. It's a life that sounds quite fancy, but according to those who have visited, the couple live modestly – in part because of Salter's limited output. (His publisher actually makes a joke about his "flagrant disregard for publication deadlines.") But now that Salter is coming up on 90, the fame that has eluded him all his life is here to stay.
Watching the author across the room – he was chatting amiably to a small, adoring crowd, a great goblet of red wine in hand – one of the glossy magazine editors sighed wistfully. "When I hit my prime," he said, "I want to be just like James Salter."