I am reading a book about death. It is Katie Roiphe’s “The Violet Hour ,” and it is about how some people, all of them famous, faced death or thought about it. I turned to the book because one of Roiphe’s subjects is the writer James Salter, who was in good health when she interviewed him but who died last year at the age of 90, quickly and suddenly, as if he were the subject of one of his own surgically precise sentences. Here and then not here.
I knew Salter. For some years he was a summertime pal. We played tennis, had some dinners, talked about politics, but not about death, which he had faced often as a fighter pilot in the Korean War, or sex, which suffused his novels, particularly the vividly explicit “A Sport and a Pastime.” I reread it from time to time, using it the way diners do sorbet — to cleanse the palate, to ungunk my writing. It has sentences of sparkling exactness, just the right word, just the right image. The narrator spies a onetime famous actress across the room at a party — “the debris of a great star,” he calls her, instantly enveloping her in the sadness of insignificance.
Salter was what was called “a man’s man.” He was a West Pointer. He had flown more than 100 missions in Korea, been in many dogfights, downed a MIG and, in his off hours, written his first novel, “The Hunters.” After the war, he turned full time to writing. He went from being Maj. James Horowitz to James Salter. He went off to France. He had a house in Aspen, where he skied, and a place in the Hamptons, where every afternoon he took a swim in the bracing ocean. He was immensely urbane. He talked of wine and of cheese and Jack Russell terriers. He had done screenplays, the much-admired “Downhill Racer,” for instance, but he adamantly would do no more, devoting himself to his novels.
I discovered these things bit by bit, mostly from what others said or wrote. I never asked the questions that were often on my mind. What was it like, Jim, to be in a dogfight over North Korea? Were you afraid of being captured? Were you afraid to die? Why did you do it, anyway? Why did you change your name and what about France and the book about sex? Something that happened to you? What can you tell me about passion and how it’s different than love — and is it?
Salter wrote a book called “Light Years.” It is about the disintegration of a marriage, a wonderful marriage with wonderful children and a wonderful house situated in the lovely Hudson River Valley. It all just goes to ruin before your eyes. Marriage is yet another mystery. What did Salter know about it? I never asked. Again, he was a man’s man. I was merely a man, and men don’t talk about such things.
Years ago, I wrote a column saying that men don’t have truly intimate friends. Pals, yes, but not really close friends. Women talk about sex, men don’t — at least not the men I’ve known. And men don’t talk about death, either, because it is about fear and insignificance. Vincent Foster, who was the deputy White House counsel under Bill Clinton, killed himself after a weekend spent fishing with his best friends. Foster never said anything was wrong. His friends never noticed anything was wrong. Something, of course, was very wrong.
I turned to the Roiphe book as a way of reopening the conversation with Salter. He had a mien of Do Not Trespass and, anyway, like many writers, he probably put everything he knew on the page. I should have asked anyway, but in truth I treated him no differently than I have treated all my friends. I know so little about their parents, of their childhood — their fears, the loves they wanted but did not have. These are questions I did not ask of my friends nor, really, of my father, whom I knew both so well and hardly at all. He had a life before me and then after me, when I had left the house and moved a long-distance call away. I now have questions for him and questions for Salter and questions for all the other people who have died — and, now that I think of it, a question for myself: Why didn’t I ask at the time?
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