Author James Salter died on Friday, June 19. His death shocked his devoted fans, having nothing to do with it being unexpected. He was 90 years old. The shock has everything to do with recognizing what we’ve lost: A writer who created perfect sentences and characters that flowed altogether into engaging, beautiful and moving stories. The quality of his writing style, his history as a combat pilot during the Korean War, his enduring classic A Sport and a Pastime (1967) all speak to Salter’s rich life and literary legacy; and yet, many readers don’t know him. He’s been ubiquitously described as “a writer’s writer” and a favorite of critics. The New York Times obituary headline reads, “James Salter, a ‘Writer’s Writer’ Short on Sales but Long on Acclaim, Dies at 90.” Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic Michael Dirda captured the essence of Salter in The Washington Post when he wrote, “He can, when he wants, break your heart with a sentence.”
With the media reacting to his death, I read many articles about James Salter this week, particularly to find out if something I recalled about the author was indeed true: that he once owned a bread company in Columbus, Ohio. I’d heard of it from a general conversation along the way, sometime, somewhere, many years ago, but it wasn’t until 2003 that it was confirmed during an unusual conversation at Barnes & Noble.
I approached the information desk to inquire if they had a copy of the then new book Lucky Girls: Stories (P.S.) by Nell Freudenberger. The man at the desk, tall, older, sophisticated, remarked, “Oh, that’s a very good book.” I rarely if ever encounter someone who knows literature at the B&N information desk, and by that I mean such a book as Freudenberger’s debut story collection that was relatively unknown and not among the popular books. My filter was off, and I blurted, “How would you know?” Not meaning to be rude, I made the comment in shock that he recognized the title, let alone that he had read the book. I was more trying to ask out of curiosity, “How and why do you know this book exists? Where did you hear about it?”
He didn’t flinch, rather kept looking up the title and said, “I read the books of authors who come out of the Iowa Writers Workshop.” That’s the creative writing program in Iowa City famous for graduating some of America’s best authors. I explained why I’d asked, and he agreed about the lack of literary knowledge at the information desk. He said, in so many words, he was a duck out of water and introduced himself as Dennis Howard. And then he said it, the astonishing statement that he knew James Salter and they had owned a bread company together.
It was called Pane. I remember the storefront on Columbus’ Grandview Avenue back in the 1990s. It was where Vino Vino, a restaurant and wine bar, is now located. A few years later at a used and rare bookstore, I purchased a first edition of James Salter’s Dusk and Other Stories signed by Salter. Beneath his name he wrote, “Pane 1/19/95.” I never saw Dennis Howard again at that Barnes & Noble.
Of all that I read about James Salter this week, I only found this one reference to Pane and Ohio, in a New Yorker article from April 2013: “The movie money didn’t last; he lost a lot of it years ago when he and a friend opened a bakery in Ohio. The venture failed, sticking Salter with heavy debts and a heavy heart.”
If you’ve never read the work of James Salter, I recommend first reading his autobiography Burning the Days. It’s one of my favorite memoirs, as I was hooked by Salter’s stories about being a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot during the Korean War, a writer in Manhattan and a script writer in Hollywood. The memoir is a treasure trove of books to put on the reading list from his mentions of authors he knew and books he read. I went on the hunt for two novels he mentions, now out of print: Disenchantment by C. E. Montague, recommended to Salter by his agent, and Lucy Crown by Irwin Shaw, of which Salter writes:
“[Irwin Shaw] had the most difficult time of his life with that book. It had taken four years. He wrote it as a play first but it was no good. Then he wrote a hundred pages of the book and again gave up, but his editor at Random House, Saxe Commins, persuaded him to go on. It eventually sold more copies than anything he ever wrote.”
I also recommend reading Salter’s short stories, such as in his collections Dusk and Other Stories (1988) and Last Night: Stories (2005), particularly the story “Last Night” in the latter. All That Is (2013), his final book and novel, spent time on The New York Times best-seller list but got mixed reviews.
Thank you for your wonderful books, James Salter. Rest in peace.