Salty World War II vet storms the publishing world

Sam Halpert is leading the charge for his first novel.

Published July 8, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Sam Halpert doesn't lack for advocates. "Tom McGuane talks about me wherever he goes," the author told Salon Books. Susan Minot contributed a blurb to the back of Halpert's 1998 debut novel, "A Real Good War," which Anchor brought out in paperback last month. "She was blown away by it, I must say that," Halpert reports. With supporters like these and a semi-autobiographical first novel behind him, you might expect these boasts to emanate from an MFAholding prodigy. In fact, Halpert is a feisty 77-year-old World War II veteran from Miami.

A retired typesetter, Halpert devoted himself fully to writing only after Raymond Carver responded effusively to his first short stories: "He said they were damned good and all that." (Halpert has edited two nonfiction books about his hero.) After completing his novel, about a World War II bomber crew, at the age of 74, Halpert shopped it around to various New York agents; all of them turned it down. He then peddled it himself. Through literary-conference connections, the small Southern Heritage house wound up publishing "A Real Good War," and it was praised everywhere from Publishers Weekly to the New York Times Book Review.

Wanting more marketing muscle behind the book, Halpert went around New York trying to persuade editors to buy the paperback rights. After a few (albeit complimentary) rejections, he called Doubleday executive editor (and Anchor vice president) Gerry Howard and asked him for five minutes of his time. "He gave me 10," Halpert says. The two eventually struck a deal.

A former B-17 navigator who flew 35 missions, Halpert says that his own favorite war novel is Erich Maria Remarque's classic, "All Quiet on the Western Front." He's also fond of the writing of fellow Air Force veteran Joseph Heller -- "I'd love to meet dear old Joe." On the film front, he didn't go wild for "Saving Private Ryan": "The whole point of war is how little control you have over your own life -- how unfair it is. You can be a good person or a just person and die. You can bend over in the wrong direction to tie your shoe and die." He recently rented Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line." "I preferred that one by far," he says. "But that damn phony poetry was too intrusive."

What does Halpert hope for the future? "Hope is a whore!" he retorts. But he must have someexpectations -- he's finished a few more short stories and a third of a new novel. "It's like that Bob Dylan song," Halpert says about the past and the future. "I'm much younger than that now."

By Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

MORE FROM Craig Offman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------