Like Joel, i've been reading some James Salter recently, specifically his short story collection Dusk and Other Stoires. While I like the authority of his voice (who was it that said that people will believe anything you say as long as you say it with confidence), I find it hard to identify with his stories because of it's tone and subject. First of all, he mainly writes about affluent upper-class people, people that ride horses and go beaching, which is fine in and of itself but he combines it with an arrogance that is offputting. The ending of "American Express" is a particularly good example of this attitude: "His life was simple. The air was pure and cool. He was part of that great, unchanging order of those who live by wages, whose world is unlit and who do not realize what is above." (p. 46) It's an attitude that’s a bit shocking to hear spelled out so bluntly, since I don’t believe Salter is being ironic. No, I don’t see him paying any attention to "wage earners" in these stories; sure, there are glimpses of them – servants in the other room, waiters across the restaurant – but these characters are typically constructed with no empathy or authority. Pronouncements like this feel like they should be ironic, but instead they come off as making me feel dirty. Another example comes in "Via Negativea" story, which depicts a failed writer whose girl leaves him for a more successful one and thus the details of her life became "...part of an immersion into the flow of a great life."
It’s the smaller details that Salter feels necessary to include that really bug me. It's not enough that the characters fail - no, the horribly bad teeth of the failed writer or the lonely woman in "Dusk" standing next to a "Prime Meats" sign feel like Salter is being needlessly cruel by piling on. The one exception to this trend is Fenn, the main character in "Akhnilo" who is stifled by his life and the hallucinogenic way in which this is revealed to him and his family. The story powerfully depicts not only how Fenn’s situation could have come about but also how he could arrive in such a state that the bizarre things that happen to him in this story make sense. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this story is the only one (as far as I can tell) where the main character is a blue-collar person.
I am going to try reading him again - I have a copy of A Sport and a Pastime which I'm hoping to see why his sexual writing is so acclaimed - but so far i'm just not that impressed.