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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

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A book from the ’60s makes its way today

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A Sport and a Pastime

By James Salter (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

The book of the season – as far as writers and reviewers were concerned – has not been among the new releases, but is an American novel published in 1967.  James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime gained remarkable coverage and word of mouth, in part motivated by the appearance this year of his first novel in many years, All That Is. 

Salter is 87, and though his latest work – set in New York City after World War II – gained a good deal of attention, it is his young man’s novel that led writers and reviewers to reconsider Salter’s influence and accomplishment.

James Salter’s literary career is part of the postwar moment that brought such figures as Norman Mailer, J.D. Salinger, and Saul Bellow to prominence. 

A recent New Yorker profile lays out his biography in a way that places him as a compatriot of these major American writers: “Salter’s father, George Horowitz, had been first in a West Point class that had graduated early, because of the First World War.  Later he had some success in real estate in New York.  Salter’s mother, Mildred, was from Washington D.C. . . .  James, an only child, was born in Passaic, N.J., in 1925, but the family soon moved to upper Manhattan.” 

As a graduate of the prestigious Horace Mann school, Salter’s upscale youth puts his early experiences more in line with Salinger’s Park Avenue childhood than Bellow’s hardscrabble Chicago upbringing. 

Salter’s first novel, The Hunters, about his experience flying fighter jets in the Korean War, appeared in 1956.   With this, he introduced what he called his “ring name,” using a term often applied to those who enter the boxing or wrestling ring under a name more flowery or enticing than the one they were born with.

By the time he was working on A Sport and a Pastime in the 1960s the ring name had become, as he told The New Yorker, a “new identity.”  He wanted, he said to his interviewer, “to distance” himself from his past.  “I was living a life of being Horowitz and being Salter, and I said, I’m going to switch over completely.”  The name change went unacknowledged for a number of years, only to be revealed in a magazine piece in 1990.

A Sport and a Pastime borrows from a period in Salter’s life, beginning in 1961, when he was stationed with the National Guard not far from Paris.  Like Phillip Dean, the hero of the novel, Salter romanced a young French woman, drove a majestic car along French rural routes, and came to know and love the country’s small-town life and culture. 

This sums up much of the narrative action in A Sport and a Pastime.  It is told from the point of view of an older, somewhat cynical American, who recounts the story of the young Phillip and his French lover, Anne-Marie.  The novel alternates between the narrator’s view of the lovers and a more immediate portrayal of their time together on the road, in hotel rooms, and in characteristic French cafés and restaurants.

  Salter concentrates on atmosphere – chapters often begin and end with an evocation of weather or the atmosphere of an empty town square.  Scenes open like still life paintings, carefully arranged: “This blue, indolent town.  Its cats.  Its pale sky.  The empty sky of morning, drained and pure. Its deep, cloven streets.  Its narrow courts, the faint, rotten odor within, orange peels lying in the corners.  The uneven curbstones, their edges worn away.  A town of doctors, all with large houses.” 

These are the finely tuned elliptical lines that have drawn younger writers to Salter, and which have lead a subsequent generation of novelists to suggest that Salter’s sentences – the fine bits and pieces of his fiction – are preeminent among postwar prose.

A careful reader will sense the constant presence of  F. Scott Fitzgerald lurking behind the lyricism and romance of Salter’s lines.  A looming doom, fulfilled by the novel’s dark end, seems to echo the end of The Great Gatsby.  And even a motif like the car driven by the young lovers – an elaborate French touring car from another age – is reminiscent of Gatsby’s “circus wagon,” driven with such abandon in Fitzgerald’s novel that it transforms his characters’ lives.  One of the novel’s remarkable aspects is its return, again and again; almost the way a musical piece retrieves a key motif, to the presentation of sexual love shared by Phillip and Anne-Marie.  The novel’s characters are revealed as much by their private intimacy as by anything else they do.  This is particularly true of Phillip, who is a figure of desire, a kind of quester, who says very little in the course of the book.  The attention to sexuality distinguishes A Sport and a Pastime, even if it came after breakthrough books such as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.  We are less startled by such experimentation today, but the notion lingers that Salter was not only a pioneer in this area, but a practitioner of particular detail and descriptive power.

  A Sport and a Pastime is, too, a sad book.  And how many of these do readers seek out, regardless of the loveliness of each line?

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