John Casey on James Salter and Breece Pancake

Earlier this year, University of Virginia Press released The Art of Fiction, a bound version of three lectures James Salter gave while serving as Kapnick Foundation Distinguished Writer-in-Residence for 2014. It’s an unfinished book – Salter meant to flesh out what he’d written, probably expand on some of the ideas and perhaps look in other direction, in other essays, to offer a more complete set of thoughts on the subject. It was a treat for me all the same; it explores some of Salter’s ideas and enthusiasms in depth, and I’ve never yet gotten my fill of that. The additional pleasure: a lengthy introductory essay by John Casey. In the essay, Casey is forthright and knowing. He calls Salter “a generous man, but precise in his generosity,” and later notes, of the difficulty of becoming a writer, “It takes a lot of miles to run a race.”

Casey would know. He’s put in the miles, and he’s still running. Spartina earned him the National Book Award in 1989. He revisited Dick Pierce 21 years later, for 2010’s Compass Rose. But if you’re unfamiliar with Casey and still skeptical, an ideal place to start is his essay on Breece D’J Pancake. It’s naturally a sort of tribute and a sort of appraisal, but more meaningfully, it’s a talented writer at the height of his powers, attempting to make sense of the loss of an immensely gifted protege. Casey acknowledges that theirs was an unconventional relationship in this regard:

He was about to turn twenty-seven when he died; I was forty. But half the time he treated me (and I treated him) as if I were his kid brother. The other half of the time he treated me like a senior officer in some ancient army of his imagination. I knew a few things, had some rank, but he felt surely that I needed some looking after. There was more to it than that of course. More than these cartoon panels can show, he was a powerful, restless friend.

The essay in full is here, on Casey’s site. Pancake’s lone book of stories is here. Read it, then read the others, then pick up some books.

– John McIntyre

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