Wednesday, September 14, 2016

A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter

James Salter is famous as a "writers' writer" -- that horrible back-handed compliment that means that other writers love him but he's never sold worth a damn. And A Sport and a Pastime is usually cited as his best-known book, but whether that means "among other writers" or "among actual readers" is less clear.

But obscure writers are fun to discover, particularly when they're the kind (like Salter) that get rediscovered like clockwork once or twice a decade. (Note that writers that actually attain any kind of popularity -- for a specific novel or series, or for their body work in any area -- never need to be rediscovered, because they're always there. Only writers that keep getting forgotten keep getting rediscovered.) And so, after having a copy on my shelves for a large number of years, I finally read A Sport and a Pastime.

It's a short book: less than 200 pages. And its two main identifying factors should equally appeal to other writers and to that fickle general readership: it's both a heavily narrated book, told by a character loosely connected to the main action who is not entirely reliable, and it's all about sex.

Some time in the early 1960s -- I think I pegged it as 1962 from internal evidence -- the feckless college dropout Philip Dean is wandering through France, searching for a reason not to die in that very post-Holden Caulfield way. He's from a well-off family, but he's at the end of their patience and his money when he reaches the sleepy town of Autun. There, he meets Anne-Marie Costallat, who is almost too good to be true: almost instantly in love with him, endlessly willing to both indulge him both in in bed and financially through her shopgirl job, smart enough to be pleasant but not so smart as to be an intellectual equal. The two of them have a lot of sex and eat a lot of good meals, and spend nearly as much time driving a borrowed car too fast through narrow country lanes. They do very little else in this book.

Watching them -- too closely, which Salter makes clear again and again -- is a slightly older American man, in his early thirties, who tells us this story at the remove of several years. (The novel was published in 1967, so call it 1966 looking back at 1962; it's about that.) The narrator has no name, but he can't be Salter himself, since he's a photographer, not a writer. (Yes, it is that transparent. He's also Salter's age at the time.)

This is a lovely book about sex and mid-century ennui; I'm old enough to find Dean a cold fish and more than a little silly, but he's not whiny about his world-weariness. He's just living a day at a time until he doesn't have a reason for another day -- I think that's silly, but I can respect it. Anne-Marie gets somewhat less depth, though Salter does try -- she's not just in the book as the sexual jackpot for Dean that she might seem to be. And, of course, both of them as they appear in this novel are explicitly the versions of themselves their narrator wants them to be; he's telling us their story, and we should not trust he's telling us every detail correctly, or that he could even know the truth of many of those details.

Sport and a Pastime is not a lost classic -- well, maybe a minor one, and an interesting signpost in the intertwined histories of unreliable narrators and of the allowable scope of sexual behavior in the American novel. It's probably forgotten again at the moment, but I expect the next rediscovery will hit by 2020.

Note: I may be distantly related to Salter; my maternal grandmother was a Salter before her marriage in Albany, NY, and James was born in NYC in 1925. That and three bucks will get you a small decaf latte, no whip.

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