One exercise I’m doing in order to pause is to identify passages I like and write them down. It’s a good thing to do–especially by hand–in order to pay attention to each word and consider the author’s approach.
Here’s a selection from James Salter’s story Dusk, which I’m rereading after discovering the book and Salter in 1988.
“The small neon sign was very bright in the greyness, there was the cemetery across the street and her own car, a foreign one, kept very clean, parked near the door, facing in the wrong direction. She always did that. She was a woman who lived a certain life. She knew how to give dinner parties, take care of dogs, enter restaurants. She had her way of answering invitations, of dressing, of being herself. Incomparable habits, you might call them. She was a woman who had read books, played golf, gone to weddings, whose legs were good, who had weathered storms, a fine woman whom no one now wanted.”
This passage is a typical way that Salter characterizes people–in one simple paragraph at the beginning of a story or novel–and it includes nearly everything I like about Salter’s way of writing. It’s a list of sorts, and you feel like you’re getting the particulars of a person’s life, except it’s actually without precise details. It’s more about the flow, the accents of a person’s life, as if he’s skating over life’s essences. He seems to be saying that the flow is what matters more than the specifics to understand who a person is.
She knows how to give dinner parties, enter restaurants–what mystery those phrases have. I have to stop and imagine a person who knows how to enter a restaurant. Is she someone who knows how to command attention when she enters a room, or just someone acquainted with the finer things and at ease with herself, or both? She’s confident, refined, knows beauty, in herself and probably in others. Incomparable habits. We know that she’s unique, perhaps even special, but other than knowing that she parks her car in the wrong direction, Salter won’t provide specifics.
Despite the lack of anything that would qualify as a fine detail in our era of fulsome and microscopic writerly details (many contemporary writers would end up laboriously telling how she gives a dog a bath to show just how she knew how to take care of dogs, a “fetishization of detail,” as James Wood calls it), each phrase is evocative, surprising. I see the arc of her life, this tragic patrician woman who’s been abandoned to a memory and knowledge of beauty more than the practice of beauty.
I still find few men who can write about women, but Salter is among the few, I think because he adores them so much, is obsessed by the ways they do things (like Fitzgerald in this regard). As a result, he’s able to capture something deeper and more fundamental with many of his female characters.
Interestingly enough, I read the story imagining this woman in her 60s or so, only to find out that she’s 46 in the end. I wonder if that was intentional on his part–to throw the last bits of her “youth” into the stark relief of an older age, place her there prematurely. I don’t think Salter is a feminist in this regard. He just understands the tragedy of how age can treat a woman unfairly, leave her at loose ends and alone in the dusk of her life.
As with many writers who have influenced me, I’ve tried to imitate Salter and failed. He writes with a simple elegance, sensual and erotic even when he’s not writing about sex, that’s difficult to match. This excerpt is not an easy thing to write.
For more, read James Salter: A Sport and a Pastime and James Salter: Burning the Days. For more of my diatribes on the “fetishization of detail,” read Writerliness gone mad, the fetishization of detail.