New book collects the late James Salter’s writing on Aspen
November 9, 2017
Counterpoint Press, 2017
320 pages, hardcover; $26
After the novelist and short-story writer James Salter died at 90 in 2015, his wife, Kay, began digging through countless boxes of his writing.
"He used to advise, 'Don't save anything,'" she writes in the preface to a new collection of his nonfiction. "He was talking about phrases or names or incidents a writer might be reluctant to use, holding them instead for a possible later work. But in a practical sense, he had clearly saved everything, not only finished copies of all he'd published but also all his notes and drafts."
The excavation of all that material led to "Don't Save Anything," which will be published Tuesday and which elegantly places between two hard covers Salter's previously published but uncollected nonfiction writings.
It totals 35 pieces written for a diverse array of magazines, from The New Yorker to People, Esquire, National Geographic and Aspen Magazine. The book is a treasure trove for fans of Salter, who is best known for novels like "A Sport and a Pastime" and "All That Is" and revered as one of the great prose stylists of post-war America. "Don't Save Anything" is an enchanting tour of his mind and interests — writing, sex, skiing, climbing, France. In his crystalline prose, he offers incisive looks at Hollywood, West Point and Vladimir Nabokov (whom he profiled in People in 1975).
The book also deserves a place of honor on every Aspen bookshelf. The section of "Don't Save Anything" devoted to Aspen includes four essays on the ski town that include some of the best writing ever devoted to it.
Salter first came to Aspen in 1959 and lived here in the West End, for the most part, until his death. He skied into his late 80s.
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In "Notes From Another Aspen," from the Aspen Magazine issue from winter 1996-97, Salter writes about arriving here in 1959, of a time when Aspen was undiscovered by the masses, when the only traffic downtown was from sheep and of the even older days when you could buy a house and a lot in the West End for $25.
His "They Call It Paradise," written for the magazine Geo in 1981, is filled with wry humor and the closely observed local wisdom of a man who had, by then, been paying close attention here for decades.
"Like Paris," he writes, "Aspen is a city of light, gaiety, generally civilized behavior, and agreeable streets. It is thought of as a sexual paradise, and in fact there is a vast array of available partners of both sexes, for the most part with enviable tans."
It vividly describes the bar scenes in the hotspots of the day — Andre's and the Hotel Jerome — with memorable quotes from Andre Ullrych and Michael Solheim. He writes of summers filled with classical music, physics and ballet. He captures the struggle of locals to make ends meet. And the essay offers unparalleled and poetic portraits of the offseasons here, and of the sad late-springtime tradition of watching the snow slowly melt away on Corkscrew, Lower Stein and the Dumps: "They are slowly becoming naked and harmless," he writes of his beloved ski runs, "covered in the end, like battlefields, with green."
In his "Snowy Nights in Aspen," from Colorado Ski Country USA's winter 1997-98 issue, Salter offers short reminiscences of gathering for dinners with friends here in the 1960s after hard days of skiing.
It fondly captures the joyous exhaustion of the evening after a powder day in bone-deep detail. Locals may want to try reading it aloud this Thanksgiving after their first day on the hill.
"The days of winter and skiing are perfect days," he writes. "If asked to explain why, I can only say, somewhat helplessly, because one loves them. The fire in the evening, the fatigue and ease, the lack of guilt at having spent the day in no more than pursuit of pleasure, and finally the warm, convivial dinner. Addodanza. If leaders of enemy peoples could ski together, much hardship could be avoided."
But Salter isn't looking at his Aspen through rose-colored glasses or writing copy for the chamber of commerce. He harbors a skepticism and an anti-Skico sentiment that will be familiar to any Aspenite along with a painful nostalgia for the way it once was here.
In "The Once and Future Queen," from a 1994 edition of Rocky Mountain Magazine, Salter offers an elegy for old Aspen, a celebration of the enduring oddball spirit of the town and a warning against the ways it would change in the 1990s.
He pinpoints the moment that Aspen stopped being a ski town and started being a resort as an early-1990s trial of an old, arthritic dog named Spade at the Pitkin County Courthouse. The black lab, he recalls, was hauled in for running loose.
"You have to understand that Aspen has changed," he quotes an unnamed judge telling Spade's owner, ski patroller Tim Howe. "It's no longer a place where dogs can sit in the middle of the street or run free."
But this essay doubles as a love letter to Aspen, to skiing here and living here year-round and the pleasures that he believed would endure in it despite the inevitable changes.
"There was a true life in the mountains around Aspen — the girl who lived year-round in the teepee up past Lenado with a white horse in the meadow and her little child, others who had cabins or old houses, new-age people never to be old," he writes. "There was a true life and though diminishing it exists still."
Salter is buried in Sag Harbor, New York, where he also kept a home and split his time. But there is no section of the book devoted to the Hamptons. His heart, it seems, remained here in Aspen.
Counterpoint Press, 2017
320 pages, hardcover; $26