Salter's Sport Calling someone a writer's writer is like telling him his biggest fan is his mother. It may very well be true, but it doesn't count. For James Salter, the label seems to have been applied too frequently for comfort, even when it's as extravagantly phrased as Peter Matthiessen's "There is scarcely a writer alive who could not learn from his passion and precision of language." Bring the "writer's writer" notion up to Salter and he quite literally groans. It's not loud enough to alert the headwaiter at New York's swank Russian Tea Room -- already quite upset that Salter and his interviewer aren't ordering the $23.50 omelet or any other food -- but it is, still, a significant grumble. "The kiss of death," he says. "I would think every writer would like people to say of him, 'He's enshrined in the hearts of his countrymen.' You want to be known as warm, effective, brilliant -- I don't know what all the adjectives are. But you certainly don't want to be thought of as someone almost entirely admired by practitioners." He pauses."It doesn't matter what you want. You get what they give you, whether you deserve it or not." Here is what James Salter has given: two early novels, The Hunters and The Arm of Flesh, the result of his years as an Air Force pilot. Then A Sport and a Pastime (1967), an erotic, dreamy story of an American in France. Two later novels, Light Years (1975), evoking the disintegration of a marriage, and Solo Faces (1979), about the cool purity of mountain-climbing: each has its partisans. And last year, the well-reviewed collection Dusk and Other Stories -- one of five nominees for this year's PEN/Faulkner Award, the winner to be announced this week. Whether or not he wins, Salter seems in the ascendancy -- and perhaps finally among a larger group than his fellow craftsmen. North Point Press, which published Dusk and has just issued it in paperback, has also reprinted the three later novels. And Salter's long essay "The Captain's Wife," which appeared in Esquire three years ago, is establishing itself as a classic. A heartbreaking tale of love and honor among Air Force fliers after World War II, "The Captain's Wife" originated with an unlikely comment. A special Esquire issue on 50 years of the American man was being planned. Editor Lee Eisenberg said to Salter: "You've been married five or six times. We'd like you to do a piece on marriage." "I'm simply tickled you want me to do that, but I haven't been married any more than you have," replied Salter. "I've only been married once," said Eisenberg. "I've been married a tiny bit more than that," said Salter, "but nothing to speak of" -- twice, in fact. "I just couldn't do this. I don't have the breadth." Eventually, he developed another idea that satisfied Eisenberg -- how he once fell in love with the wife of a best friend. "The Captain's Wife," in turn, has prompted a forthcoming book of memoirs. Another chapter, on Irwin Shaw, will be published in Esquire's fiction issue this summer. But in spite of this recent attention -- Dusk even went into a second printing, a rare thing for a short-story collection -- Salter doesn't feel any more prominent. "I haven't noticed cars slowing down outside my house," he says. "I'd be very ungrateful if I didn't say I was pleased by the reprints . . . But as Henry Green said, you don't feel any more proud of yourself than somebody who grows fingernails." Beyond this, the marketplace doesn't interest him very much. "The genuine excitement is when you're writing. My viewpoint may be limited. There are unquestionably writers who are very excited when they see their books on the bestseller list, when large checks start coming in, when their agent calls and says, so-and-so wants to do your movie. I can see how there must be some elation. But in all seriousness, the chief joy is when you think you may be doing something that's good." A Sport and a Pastime is generally conceded to be Salter at his best. It had a difficult birth. Doubleday, which published it as a Paris Review Edition, "didn't know what it was. They ran a little ad, an amateur-looking text that looked like somebody had done it in the mailroom. It said, A Sport and a Pastime is not a book about baseball. That's all they had to say." Perhaps the subject matter frightened them: The novel took what used to be forbidden in books -- an erotic content -- and made it the principal text. "Rather than as the climax of scenes, it was the mundane part," the author explains. "It almost reversed position with daily life." This makes it sound like a dirty book; indeed, a few reviewers were alarmed. Says Salter: "Today it doesn't seem shocking at all, but we're in a rather depraved situation, don't you think?" With its elusive, ambiguous narrator describing the love affair of a Yale dropout and a beautiful French girl, the novel displays the musical style that has brought Salter such acclaim. The last paragraph, describing the fate of the heroine, suggests his clarity and directness: "She is married. I suppose there are children. They walk together on Sundays, the sunlight falling upon them. They visit friends, talk, go home in the evening, deep in the life we all agree is so greatly to be desired." Glasnost for Kids TALK about glasnost: Warmer relations between the United States and what was formerly called the Evil Empire have now produced the first Soviet-American children's tale, Here Comes the Cat (Scholastic). Written and drawn by Vladimir Vagin and Frank Asch, the book is a pleasing bit of peace-mongering: the mice are all excited about the cat's approach, and run around in a panic; then it turns out that he's actually bringing a gift of cheese. Cat and mice become friends, even if the mice probably don't get much sleep. At a reception to launch the book at the Soviet Embassy -- before an audience of 2nd and 3rd graders from the embassy school and 1st graders from D.C.'s Murch School -- the two authors talked about how they had collaborated across the sea. Oddly, Vagin and Asch look faintly like twins: salt-and-pepper beards and hair, roughly equal heights and earnest demeanors. They met at a 1986 children's book symposium. Initially, said Asch, "all the negative stereotypes . . . came out of their dark hiding places." But he soon warmed up, and the two began "the process of transforming our nightmares into dreams and then realities." Through a translator, Vagin added that "you might not think we spent so much time developing this book, because it's such a small book . . . {but} we hope it's a symbol of what can be done in the future." Soviet Ambassador Yuri Dubrinin offered his own interpretation: "What is to be the foundation of state to state relations? It should be good feelings." Things got livelier when the two authors acted out their book -- a difficult task, seeing as how the text consists of one frequently repeated line, "Here comes the cat!" The Soviet and American children were indistinguishable from each other, which perhaps illustrates the point. All were charmed. Later came the treats. Vodka? No, Yodels and Fig Newtons. A Touch of Classics IN AN ambitious attempt not only to strike a blow for world literature but also to carve out some space in bookstores, Vintage Books has just launched Vintage International. The new imprint will be devoted to reviving titles from Vintage's ample backlist along with presenting newly acquired works. No books by Americans need apply, but everything else is fair game. What's most striking about the first 15 titles is the cover design: A standard black background with a flat finish instead of the traditionally glossy one. Beyond this, though, every cover is different, from the dreamy hues of Howards End to the stylized figure on Death in Venice. "Within the chaos of a bookstore, it's hard to focus on anything," said Vintage vice president and executive editor Erroll McDonald. "These books are, if anything, striking. It's up to the sensibility of a bookbuyer to decide if he or she likes them. Frequently, the negative responses that I've heard come from people who would not be reading this kind of book." Through December, Vintage International will do 56 books. Twenty-two of them are from backlist; the remainder will be new, including an eventual total of 20 by Nabokov. There will not, however, be any previously unpublished material. "It's harder to break out fiction originals than it's ever been," explains McDonald. That wasn't the case when he started the predecessor to Vintage International, Aventura, earlier in the decade. Those were bolder times, and Aventura focused on writers who might be popular elsewhere in the world -- Timothy Mo, Tadeusz Konwicki -- but were unknown in America. While the series had some success, "to be frank, it wasn't working out the way I would have anticipated," says McDonald. "Then, the idea of a paperback series had some uniqueness. But the market got incredibly overcrowded. It lost its cachet. So we cut back." The plan with Vintage International was to take the unknown, Aventura-type authors and mix them up with both contemporary masters (Naipaul, Rushdie) and old classics (Thomas Mann, Camus, Proust). Get 'em with the Camus and they might be influenced to try the late Hungarian novelist Mila'n Fu st's vivid and bizarre tale of obsession, The Story of My Wife. A smart idea, and it might work. Beating Around Bush YOU'RE supposed to find endorsements on the back of a book, or at least some advertising blurbs. On the back of the new collection of Doonesbury cartoons, Read My Lips, Make My Day, Eat Quiche and Die!, are testimonials of a different sort: eight quotes from the strip's central subject of mockery, George Bush. "I don't get troubled by {Doonesbury} because I know who I am," Bush said in 1984. Three years later, he had a contradictory viewpoint: "It doesn't bother me like it used to." But that very same day, he's also quoted as saying: "I wanted to go up and kick the hell out of him, frankly." Do you get the feeling this collection won't be required reading in the White House? ::