Mark's Reviews > A Sport and a Pastime

A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter
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May 31, 11

bookshelves: fiction
Read in May, 2011

I wish I could write like James Salter. Every sentence in this book is a work of art, without being overwrought or overthought. Just thinking about how he uses words practically freezes my own fingers on the keyboard. I hesitate to try to describe how excellent his prose is because my attempt simply can't do it justice. So, instead, I present the book's fifth paragraph, which partly describes the narrator's train ride from Paris into the French countryside, circa 1962:

Green, bourgeoise France. We are going at tremendous speed. We cross bridges, the sound short and drumming. The country is opening up. We are on our way to towns where no one goes. There are long, wheat-colored stretches and then green, level land, recumbent and rich. The farms are built of stone. The wisdom of generations knows that land is the only real wealth, a knowledge that need not question itself, need not change. Open country flat as playing fields. Stands of trees.

Later, fifty pages in, the narrator imagines the two main characters of the book (for he is not one of them, not really), Dean and Anne-Marie, going up to her apartment together for the first time:

She stoops with the match, inserts it, and the heater softly explodes. A blue flame rushes across the jets, then burns with a steady sound. There's no other light in the room but this, which reflects from the floor. She stands up again. She drops the burnt match on the table and begins to arrange clothing on the grill of the heater, pajamas, spreading them out so they can be warmed. Dean helps her a bit. The silk, if it's that, is quite cold. And there, back from the Vox opposite the Citroen garage, its glass doors now closed, they stand in the roaring dark. In a fond, almost brotherly gesture, he puts his arms around her. They hardly know one another. She accepts it without a word, without a movement, and they wait in a pure silence, the faint sweetness of gas in the air. After a while she turns the pajamas over. Her back is towards him. In a single move she pulls off her sweater and then, reaching behind herself in that elbow-awkward way, unfastens her brassière. Slowly he turns her around.

But it's not all lovely description, revealing character through gestures and movements. Here's some dialogue, in which the narrator, an American, has returned to Paris from the countryside for a few days and meets a woman whom his friends have brought along to dinner, ostensibly to set the two of them up together:

"How long are you here for?" says Alix.
"Just a few days. You don't mean in France? Altogether?"
"Yes, in France."
"I don't know," I tell her. "I've already stayed longer than I expected."
"Um," she says. "You like it then."
I can't answer that. Finally I nod. I say,
"Yes."
She turns to Cristina.
"He's rather nice," she says and then, talking to them, abandons me.


See what I mean? And the whole book is like that. Reading it has made me see my own life more vividly. I finished it in two days and already I want to read it again.

Gorgeous prose aside, this book is a thrilling invention. Yes, it fits into that "WASPy white guy" mold of Updike, Cheever, et al.--there's a bit of racism, even more sexism, and several, let's say, "effective" sex scenes that put Rabbit, Run to shame--but still a towering epic of an imagined affair condensed into 185 swift pages.
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