James Salter, 'the greatest writer you've never read', dies at 90

  • AFP, Paris
  • Updated: Jun 20, 2015 17:36 IST

American novelist James Salter -- who long laboured with the dubious honour of being "the greatest writer you've never read" -- has died aged 90.

The former US fighter pilot who flew in the Korean War alongside the astronaut Buzz Aldrin -- the second man to walk on the moon -- numbered some of the century's greatest writers among his fans, including Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Joseph Heller, but he never quite converted critical acclaim into the popularity he craved.

A handsome, ramrod-straight sportsman even into his late 80s, he died Friday during "a gym session" at Sag Harbor near his home in Bridgehampton in New York State, his French publisher Olivier Cohen said.

Although his first book, The Hunters (1956), written in between dogfights with Chinese fighter jets in Korea, was made into a Hollywood film starring Robert Mitchum, his five later novels had a much smaller though no less adoring readership.

Born on June 10, 1925 in New York as James Horowitz, he trained at the country's prestigious West Point military academy and survived a crash-landing while training as a US Air Force pilot before being posted to the Pacific.

He began to write after being transferred to France, where his languidly erotic classic A Sport And A Pastime is set. Having risen to the rank of major, he left the military to concentrate on novels and short stories.

Far from prolific, Salter published only six novels over the decades, but as his fellow US great Richard Ford wrote in the introduction to his 1975 novel Light Years: "It is an article of faith among readers of fiction that James Salter writes American sentences better than anybody writing today."

Only with his last novel, All That Is, did he acquire anything like the global reputation that his fans had long thought he deserved. French bookshop workers voted it their favourite book of 2014. He won also won both the prestigious American Pen/Malamud (2012) and PEN/Faulkner awards (1989).

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