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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

James Salter' "Dusk and Other Stories"

Some years ago, I bought a copy of "A Reader's Manifesto" by B.R. Myers at a used bookstore.  The book might have been misplaced, or shelved incorrectly on purpose by a disgruntled employee or customer or both.  I didn't read the book... the introduction was enough to make me put it down and regret spending all of $2 on it.  B.R. Myers apparently got a memo from God telling him Ed McMahon had died, and God decided (against His better judgment) to name Myers the new host of "Star Search."  Perhaps my humor doesn't carry via the Internet, or the joke is simply my own personal bitterness at the misguidedness of B.R. Myers.  It's one thing to singlehandly decide, "well, here... this is what is wrong with contemporary American literature... it's full of pretentiousness and high-brow idiots," and to actually say it with a straight face and mean it, and publish a book about to boot.  It is another thing altogether to actually have the credentials to criticize indiscriminately while at the same time not having produced a novel of the quality of any of the authors he blasts throughout the book.  I know, I know, I can already hear Myers say, "If you didn't read the entire book, you can't say shit about it."  But more on this later because, as you will see, I can say shit about it.

The introduction to this post is based on the fact that when I began reading "Dusk and Other Stories" by James Salter I couldn't decide on whether or not B.R. Myers was right all along.  James Salter was introduced to me by a very good friend, and since my good friend is someone whose literary taste I have supreme confidence on, I figured I had nothing to lose and everything to gain.  The first short story, "Am Strande von Tanger" struck me odd from the start.  What I mean with this cryptic statement is that I couldn't decide if this was great literature because of its style, or whether I was being filmed secretly by a "Candid Camera" crew waiting to see my reaction.  It was tough going, but once I got to the middle of the story, I was hooked.  My initial reaction was based, in part, on some criticism I read while in graduate school about the "young literary men" of the 1920s who tried so hard to imitate the language and style of "The Sun Also Rises" that everyone sounded like Ernest Hemingway regardless of genre.  Imagine a romance novel written in the voice of Nick Adams and you might get the idea.  I don't know much about Salter, but the first few pages of "Dusk and Other Stories" made me think he was a left-over from that very period of time.  Here's a sample of the opening story,
"Morning.  Villa-Lobos is playing on the phonograph.  The cage is on a stool in the doorway.  Malcolm lies in a canvas chair eating an orange.  He is in love with the city.  He has a deep attachment to it based on a story by Paul Morand and also on an incident which occurred in Barcelona years before: one evening in the twilight Antonio Gaudi, mysterious, fragile, even saintlike, the city's great architect, was hit by a streetcar as he walked to church.  He was very old, white beard, white hair, dressed in the simplest of clothes.  No one recognized him.  He lay in the street without even a cab to drive him to the hospital.  Finally he was taken to the charity ward.  He died the day Malcolm was born."  And then, a little further on...  Malcolm has a pair of shorts made from rough cotton, the blue glazed cotton of the Tauregs.  They have a little belt, slim as a finger, which goes halfway around.  He feels powerful as he puts them on.  He has a runner's body, a body without flaws, the body of a martyr in a Flemish painting.  One can see vessels laid like cord beneath the surface of his limbs."  But by the end of the first story, I was a convert... James Salter is down-right a master of descriptive artistry and a weaver of amazing plot structure.

Two things are absolutely genius about Salter's work.  First, the amount of description can be misleading.  I've tried to analyze the amount of skill and talent it takes to pull this off, but to no avail.  Salter draws the reader in with descriptive passages that paint a complete picture in the reader's mind.  He builds the characters around these settings and allows them to take shape inside these imaginary worlds.  Secondly, the number of brilliant literary analogies (often found at the end of paragraphs) makes me feel like a young lady sighing the night away.  Somehow (and this is the part that is nearly impossible to pin down), all of the stories work so brilliantly that any suspicion of pretentiousness or high-brow posturing evaporate.  There's a genius here that is hard to dissect, a type of word-craft and skill at writing that borders on absolute perfection.  Not one word (and this is no hyperbole) seems out of place.

The story "Dusk" is (despite being the title story) not one of the most impressive, but it illustrates Salter's ability to construct a character by telling details about her/him all the while incorporating the character into the description, the setting, the vast canvas of the imagined world.  The main character, a woman named Marian is, from start to finish, an enigma... even when minute details about her life story have been revealed, she remains open to the reader's interpretation.  It is simply masterful, and I can't stop saying it again and again.  The entire collection is an absolute pleasure to read and an intellectual challenge to boot.

Which brings me back to B.R. Myers.  James Salter did, in fact, bring back B.R. Myers to the forefront of my literary reading list.  My impression of Salter made me dig out the little book of criticism, but after re-reading the introduction, I had to once again put it down.  This is all I need to know about "A Reader's Manifesto."  You have to understand... I wasn't always a scholar.  I was a U.S. Marine in my youth and not prone to lengthy diplomatic discussions about any topic.  So, when I read Myers' criticism of my favorite writer, Paul Auster (the anointed one... the Great White Jewish One... pound for pound the best writer in the world) I took it personally.  I won't stand for it.  I worship the literary ground Auster walks on, and, as a devotee, I have a strong warning for B.R. Myers that comes from the regions of my being where I am still a hard-charging U.S. Marine, an infantryman with a bad attitude and a cutting-edge will to get the mission done.  First, stop using initials and write out your real fucking name--most pretentious, high-brow asshats use initials.  Second, you criticize Paul Auster again, and I swear I will fucking cut you, bitch.  (End of rant).

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