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Sexuality and Sadness
on 23 June 2009
"A Sport and a Pastime" (1968) is the third novel of the American writer James Salter (b. 1925). Before becoming a writer, Salter lived an energetic life as a West Point graduate and a fighter pilot. I read this book because I loved Salter's novel "Light Years", which was his next novel after this one. Salter remains unknown to many readers. The two books I have read show Salter as the master of a lyrical, precise, and highly distinctive writing style. Salter writes of eroticism and passion tinged with sadness and with the inevitability of loss.
The book is set in France in the late 1950s and features three primary characters, two American men and a young French woman. The story is told by a nameless narrator, an American man of 34, college-educated, who is visiting old companions from school in the United States. The narrator tells something of his own story combined with the story of a young man whom he befriends during his stay, Phillip Dean. Dean, age 24, is highly intelligent but footloose. He has been touring Spain and then visits France after twice dropping out, he claims due to boredom, from Yale. Dean is the son of a wealthy American family. His father and sister are also staying in Paris. While in a bistro in Autumn, France, Dean and the narrator meet an 18-year old French shopgirl, Anne-Marie. Dean and Anne-Marie quickly begin a highly-charged and erotic love affair. The description of the affair, through the eyes of the narrator, takes up most of the book.
The narrator admits his unreliability. At the simplest level, the erotic affair between Dean and Anne-Marie, while described in the most intimate detail, mostly takes place out of sight of the narrator. The accuracy of the account is questionable. More importantly, the narrator is unlike Dean in many ways. In early middle age, the narrator, although highly literate and perceptive, has difficulty approaching women sexually. In the initial scenes of the book, the narrator is attracted to at least two young women travelling with him on the train, makes eye contact, but will not approach them. As the book progresses, he becomes highly enamored with another young woman but does not approach her. She becomes engaged. The narrator has a life of sexual frustration.
The narrator sees his friend Dean as heroic, with a self-confident swagger. Dean is a man who knows what he wants and how to get it with women. Dean also leds a life of bravado, as he recklessly drives an expensive French sports car, borrowed from a friend, and spends money, which he increasingly cadges from family and friends, with little restraint. With its recklessness and improvidence, there are many intimations in the book that Phillip Dean's life will be short. The narrator's portrayal of his friend may in part be a projection of the narrator's own felt inadequacies and his own dreams. The matter is left ambiguous. My own feeling is that his story is mostly true. But whether it is a projection or a factual account is largely irrelevant. The book, in the story of Annie-Marie and Phillip Dean, captures the force of erotic love, of passion, and of heartbreak.
The novel's language and style are highly-charged. They show a writer with a sense of mastery of what he wants to do. The novel has an explicitness in its sexual content that was unusual in a work of literature of the time and that still retains its force. Salter contrasts the fire of his Dean and Anne-Marie, with the lives of frustration and boredom of the narrator and of the book's secondary characters. Salter has an extraordinary sense of France, especially of small towns, cafes, hotels, shops, and ordinary people outside the range of tourists. He is an almost painterly writer who is taken with the surfaces of things, with sex and with fast cars, that some might find superficial. Yet there is a sense of mystery in this book, of passion, and of loss.
Among other books, "A Sport and a Pastime" reminded me of Kerouac's "On the Road." Kerouac and Salter were in fact schoolmates for a short time. Salter's writing is far more elegant and disciplined than is Kerouac's. But Phillip Dean, with his rootlessness and recklessness, love of cars, and energetic sexuality shows parallells to Kerouac's Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady in "On the Road". So to, the narrator in Salter's novel, with his ambivalences and almost hero-worship of Dean, resembles in many ways Sal Paradise/Kerouac, the narrator of Kerouac's famous novel. Kerouac's book has achieved greater public recognition, and I would not want to judge as between the two novels. But Salter's book is far more concentrated and has a much more mannered and elaborate literary style.
It is a great pleasure to discover a writer one has not known before. Salter's "A Sport and a Pastime" and "Light Years" have brought me poetry and thought. Readers willing to explore a unique American writer will enjoy these books.