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James Salter’s ‘Don’t Save Anything’ journeys from Nabokov to Eisenhower

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Don't Save Anything By James Salter, $26.

"A great book may be an accident, but a good one is a possibility,” James Salter writes in Don’t Save Anything’s first essay. The posthumous collection reflects a lifetime of the writer’s journalism, essays and profiles. Culled from such periodicals as People and The New Yorker, Salter’s work illustrates a life of curiosity and respect for disciplined men. Though previously known for his fiction, he wrote effusively of mountain climbers, generals, authors, himself and his friends. Don’t Save Anything shows his affection for both the written word and the world at large.

Salter admires Frank Conroy, who developed the Iowa Writers’ Workshop into the institution it is today, “the way the great cities of Europe were built, not by committee but royal decree.” He also writes of Nabokov, who, at the end of his life “[seemed] busy bricking up any remaining chinks in the wall of his reputation” by shaping his own image. A military man himself, Salter writes with shrewdness and sentimentality about West Point and generals like Eisenhower. “Generals who do not fail, succeed,” he tells us, examining Eisenhower’s rise in success through reliability and careful planning. “Perhaps he was not a great general. He was not a heroic one.. He was a new invention, the military manager, and the army was made over in his image.”

If there’s an off note in Don’t Save Anything—one that feels out of place in 2017—it’s “Younger Women, Older Men,” Salter’s essay about the appeal of May/December romance. “Men’s dream and ambition is to have women,” he says, “as a cat’s is to catch birds, but this is something that must be restrained. The slightest understanding of things shows that men will take what they are not prevented from taking, and all the force of society must be set against this impulse.”

Salter seems on surer footing when he focuses on friendship, which he says, “is more than knowledge and intimacy. It belongs to the order of things that cannot be weighed, like sorrow, honor, and hope. It is a form of love. It lies in the heart.”

Whether writing about people who scale the highest peaks in Yosemite or rise through military ranks to become celebrated leaders, Salter seems to enjoy immersing himself in his subject’s world. To quote him quoting Chekhov, “Drawing conclusions … is up to the jury, that is, the readers. My only job is to be talented.”

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