The Breakfast Table

Of Cockfights and Handsome Septuagenarians

I won’t go into “the end of greatness” except to say that it sounds like the title to Tom Brokaw’s next book on the World War II generation. Maybe the head cold’s got me in a bad mood. The cold pills kept me up all night, gave me disturbing dreams (a rabbit with a cyst). My voice sounded like Deborah Winger’s yesterday but has moved into Marcel Marceau this morning. The experience of trying to talk to Liam over the phone just now–and not being able to say anything–was sad, like I was a ghost reaching out from the afterlife.

As I lay awake last night, my mind kept returning to the rooster story–and how one little fact, one tidbit, can suddenly change your mind, turn you against some previously held notion. In the case of the roosters, I was thinking bad thoughts about cockfighting–how uncivilized and undecent–and then when I got to that last paragraph about the police killing them “more humanely,” I felt myself pulled toward the other side, away from the police and this crazy notion of “humane.” (I guess I am just against killing of any kind.) And the cockfighters and gamblers and the police and the animal control folks all started to seem on the same sinking ship in my mind. (OK, so I did read a bit of Moby Dick last night, too.)

I had a conversation yesterday in which this mind-changed-by-a-detail phenomenon came up in a different way. In the Boulder Bookstore, a woman and I were talking about good-looking men–specifically, good-looking men in their 70s. (She had revealed a longstanding crush on Ben Bradlee and pressed me for up-close details.) She felt there were only a few men in this category of seniority and attractiveness (her words were a bit more pulpy) and said she had heard the writer Peter Matthiessen speak once and attested to his fabulous allure. She also mentioned James Salter.

“Have you ever met him?” the woman asked.

“No,” I said. “But for a long time A Sport and a Pastime was my favorite book. And then it wasn’t.”

I tried to explain how Salter’s memoirs, Burning the Days, had oddly turned me against him entirely. What was it, the woman wanted to know, that had put me off? She had loved his memoirs. It wasn’t his memoirs specifically, I said. It was what wasn’t in them. Like, the fact–which I learned from a David Streitfeld profile in the Post–that James Salter was born James Horowitz and that he changed his name late in life, when he was nearly 30. He wanted a pen name that suited him.

Tell me, how does that happen without a mention in his memoirs? How does he go from being Horowitz to Salter and not explain exactly why?

Perhaps I’m overreacting. The point is, I don’t trust him anymore. Favorite books and favorite writers aren’t the result of a rational exercise–as we discussed when we talked about Lucinda Williams. And now, suddenly, when the subject of James Salter’s allure comes up, I can’t imagine what allure there might be.

Hey! I found the perfect homecoming present for Liam. It’s a book called Squids Will Be Squids. I’m out the door–in pursuit of the new New Yorker for the flight. See you soon!