June 25, 2015 6:25 AM EDT

Yes, there were the lapidary sentences–so extraordinary in their word-choosings and their rightness about human response to life’s exigencies that the rest of us, his adoring colleagues and writer pals, just shook our heads: you couldn’t teach that, or learn it. It’s genius. But James Salter, who died at 90 on June 19, lived anything but a Flaubertian life of tweezing self-scrutiny. He was a flinty, handsome West Pointer who flew F-86s in Korea, a Paris habitué, a screenwriter, a master of all the storytelling genres, who wrote vividly (and memorably) about sex and often about East Coasters you might not want to share an uptown cab with but whom he made be, with those breathtaking sentences, transactors of a specific and specifically American moral gravity. That’s why you read him: what he wrote is important. He was also modest though not humble, precise, funny about himself, snake-smart and a great guy just to wander out with into a summer night for a drink on the Boulevard Saint-Germain.


Ford is the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Sportswriter

This appears in the July 06, 2015 issue of TIME.

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