James Salter, Light Years

We dash the black river, its flats smooth as stone.

In honor of his first new book in thirty years, here’s a sentence from James Salter, the first in his novel Light Years. Salter’s an easy choice for the Sentence Project–Richard Ford, himself no slouch of a writer, declares, “It is an article of faith among readers of fiction that James Salter writes American sentences better than anybody writing today.” Ford wrote that in the ’90s, but still. Salter’s books are littered with arresting sentences. 

Many of them share something with the sentences above, which is a short lyrical burst. It’s sentence content to give us an image without explanation. It’s a sentence that could easily exist in a contemporary American poem with its short A and S sounds, with its two three-beat phrases joined by a comma. It’s a sentence that aims to get our attention, prick our ears. And it does.

It’s interesting to note the recent interview Salter gave on Guernica. In it, Salter notes that in his new book, he’s deliberately turned the volume down on his sentences. Here’s what he says about why:

I suppose the truth is I became a little self-conscious about people telling me how much they loved my sentences. They’d come up and say, “You know what, I’ve memorized lines from Light Years.” At book signings you’d see them with the corners of pages turned down, particular pages they’d loved and sentences they’d underlined. It’s flattering, but it seemed to me that this love of sentences was in some sense getting in the way of the book itself. And perhaps I also had in my head the fact that the first critic who wrote a big review of Light Years said it was “chichi,” a “silly” book, words to that affect.

I have to admit I’m a little sad about that quote. Do we live in an age with less room for lyricism in our novels? Are we so surrounded by competent, straightforward prose that we resist prose of a more circuitous, sound-driven bent? Or is that just the path that Salter’s chosen, having already clearly mastered the lyrical novel? I will be reading All That Is soon to see how what Salter says plays itself out on the page.

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