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Gristmill: A Modern Marriage

Thu, 10/28/2021 - 10:57

This isn’t about James Salter. But probably the most memorable interview I’ve done for this paper involved . . . James Salter.

Aside from the fact that sitting in his Bridgehampton driveway was a model of car identical to my own — two-door Honda Accord, hatchback, mid-’80s, graphite gray, off-the-charts reliability — what he said about the movie biz always stuck with me. How he’d followed his best instincts out to Hollywood, writing the famously terse screenplay for “Downhill Racer” starring Robert Redford, then another, even directing a film.

He said he’d always regretted leaving it. He did just fine, needless to say — his reputation as a novelist only grew in his later years. But his description of moviemaking as the dominant art form of our time was certainly spot on. This was in 2005. If you factor in the new golden age of television and the ascendancy of the small screen since then, it’s even more so.

All of which came to mind the other day after finishing “Us,” a PBS mini-series that ran on “Masterpiece,” written by a Brit, David Nicholls, based on his novel, and maybe the most realistic, not to say affecting, depiction of married life I’ve seen. Sure, I enjoyed “Marriage Story,” with Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as an actress and a theater director doing battle, and especially seeing the big lug serenade fellow diners with Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive.”

“Us,” however, with completely natural performances by Tom Hollander and Saskia Reeves, lacks all interpersonal histrionics; he’s in administration with Big Pharma, she works in art therapy. There isn’t even infidelity. As I say, real. What it does have is a family trying to hold it together over a rocky summer vacation on the Continent. And a son’s impending departure for college. And the parents left halfway bereft once he’s gone.

I moved on from the uselessness of recommending books a long time go, but somehow it’s different with something you can easily call up and watch, and I couldn’t stop thinking, “Every married couple should see this.” Among other reasons, to face the fact of the empty nest, and what comes after. (I won’t give anything away; the show’s available through PBS Passport and on Amazon Prime.)

But Salter. He knew relationships. Just this year I read his novel “Light Years,” which in that interview he described as “about a modern marriage, in which one lives a little longer than the originator of the institution intended.”


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