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Lyrical and elegant memoir
on November 17, 2016
In the preface of BURNING THE DAYS, James Salter explains that this book—a recollection, not a memoir—originated with “The Captain’s Wife”, which was “a kind of personal essay” that Esquire published in 1986. According to Salter, Joe Fox, his editor at Random House, liked this essay, which had a lyrical and elegant tone and conveys the experiences of Salter in his twenties when he was a pilot in the air force and in love with the wife of a close friend. Fox urged Salter to write more and—voila!—BURNING THE DAYS.
Salter is a wonderful writer. Here, for example, is a typical Salter paragraph… this one from the chapter “Icarus”, in which his primary subject is learning to fly.
“Early flights, the instructor in the rear cockpit, the bumpy taxiing on the grass, turning into the wind, tail swinging around, dust blowing, and then the abrupt, wild sound of the engine. The ground was speeding by, the wheels skipping, and suddenly we were rising in the din to see the blue line beyond the field boundary and below, the curved roofs of the hangars falling away. Now, fields appeared, swimming out in all directions. The earth became limitless, the horizon, unseen before, rose to fill the world and we were aloft in unstructured air.”
BURNING THE DAYS has two sections. In the first, Salter discusses his family, his career at West Point, and his experiences as an air force pilot who moves from base to base, switches from freighters to fighters, and eventually flies combat missions in Korea. “Burning the Days”, the final chapter in this section, describes the life of an established pilot who is part of a highly specialized subculture that has its own rhythms, values, and heroes. Altogether, this first section of BTD is brilliant and cohesive and is surely one of the best memoirs I’ve read.
Meanwhile, the risky second section of this book, while retaining Salter’s wonderful lyricism, lacks the arc of a single narrative. Instead, this four-part section reads like highly accomplished magazine articles that are unified only in voice. In these four standalone pieces, Salter writes about his friendship with the once popular novelist Irwin Shaw, his adventures over a lifetime in Paris, the frustrations of a screenwriter in the movie business, and the friendships and projects that became Salter’s life in book publishing. Section two is lovely but also disjointed. It reads long.
My edition of this memoir has a back-cover blurb that declares “…BURNING THE DAYS is marvelous both for its powers of recollection and for the way it structures its memories into a dazzling meditation on time, desire, pleasure, and regret.” This is spot-on.