Sal Salamone (1948-2012)

[Remarks delivered at KGB Bar, Greenwich Village, October 2012.]

Sal Salamone died, suddenly, on August 28, 2012, during the summer break in the Trumpet Fiction reading series here at KGB. After Jonathan found out that Sal was gone, he suggested that we take a few minutes to remember him, so that’s why I’m up here, behind this podium, tonight. It’s fitting that we should remember Sal. He was part of the Trumpet Fiction family. Apart from Jonathan and Charles and Annie and me, Sal attended more of these readings than anyone else. He bought every book Greenpoint Press published—and just about every book by every author who read at Trumpet Fiction. He was also a writer himself, a serious writer, as disciplined in his process and as determined in his work as any I’ve ever known. But he never asked to read at Trumpet Fiction. For one thing, he didn’t like to be the center of attention. But he also had a weird verbal tic where he would regularly invert the syllables of words. As a friend of ours said after the funeral, Sal had gone to meet the “Gangel Abriel.” So that’s another reason we’re remembering him, and his work, tonight.

The great writing project of Sal’s life’s was a novel called Fate and Other Tyrants. It’s an epic story set in Italy that weaves together politics and religion and love and betrayal across two war-torn generations in the first half of the twentieth century. The novel took him 30 years to finish. For those 30 years, Sal worked full time as a computer analyst at Manufacturers Hanover Trust, which merged into Chemical Bank, which merged into Chase Manhattan Bank, which acquired JP Morgan and became JP Morgan-Chase. His job was to write the computer patches that synched the payroll programs after each merger. He wrote his novel during lunch hours and coffee breaks, at night and on weekends; he even wrote while the mainframes were running tests of his patch programs. He wrote long hand, in green and black composition books. After he finished his first draft, over a decade into the project, he keyboarded the entire thing into something called Leading Edge word processor—revising and editing as he went along. That took another five years. Unfortunately, during those five years, Microsoft Word became the industry standard . . . and it couldn’t convert Leading Edge documents. So Sal had to keyboard in the entire manuscript again—once again, editing and revising as he went along. That took another five years. It was at that point that he printed out a copy for me.

It was 2,822 pages long.

At 275 words per page, that's roughly the same length as the King James Bible. It took me six months to get through it; during that time, the physical weight of the manuscript warped the corner section of my desk. But I did finish it. The story is fast-paced, and the characters are vivid, but the writing is uneven. He needed an editor—he knew it himself. While I was reading it, he began sending out queries to a dozen publishing houses. But, strangely enough, none of them were interested in a 2,822 page novel from an unpublished author. Same for literary agents. He resigned himself to the fact that he was going to have to self-publish the book. But even iUniverse couldn’t deal with 2,822 manuscript pages. He was told he would have to break it up into three sections. The easy thing would have been to break it up chronologically. But writers who do the easy thing don’t write 2,822 page novels. He broke it up thematically: one volume keyed to the rise of Fascism, one keyed to tensions within the Church, one keyed to the struggle of intellectuals and journalists. The process of splitting up and re-editing the novel, then polishing and publishing the three individual volumes, took him another nine years.

Six months into his retirement, he handed me the third and final published volume. That was Thursday afternoon, August 23, 2012, after he and I and John and Kevin finished a round of pitch and putt golf. The following Tuesday, August 28, Sal was out in his backyard playing basketball with his 16 year old nephew. He started to feel sick . . . but he finished the game. Then he walked back into his house, collapsed, and died. He was 64.

Sal knew writing was never going to make him rich. He knew it was never going to make him famous. But he kept writing, decade after decade, for the purest reason of all: He had a story he wanted to tell. He wasn’t the greatest writer I’ve ever known. But he was noblest.

The last thing Sal ever wrote, as far as I can tell, was a group email to the three of usme, John, and Kevin—apologizing for not getting back to us sooner, and confirming that he could again play pitch and putt the following Thursday. That was the Thursday, as it turned out, after he died:“Guys, I spoke with Mark, and I can definitely make Thursday's golf and lunch. I'm taking August off from writing, so I'm not on the computer everyday. Thanks for remembering me.”

I want to thank Jonathan, and Charles, and Annie, and the rest of you who knew him, for remembering Sal tonight. I know there are a lot of writers in this crowd. Which means there are a lot of people sitting here who understand the effort, and the frustration, and the grief, and, if you’re lucky, the occasional sense of accomplishment that goes with writing. I’d ask that you remember Sal too, even if you didn’t know him. And if you’re so inclined, keep him in your prayers, at least for a while.