Reading James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime

It’s been said that one of the most satisfying pleasures in life is checking things off a list. I do it all the time when setting myself productivity targets. The one second it takes to draw that horizontal line through a target is enough for me to initiate superhuman productivity mode. This year I’ve been working hard to overcome my deteriorating reading efficiency. I love to read, but 2016 saw an abysmal effort on my part. The purchases of books kept increasing, and yet I was reading less. Part of it is the number of distractions I now have on hand; the purchase of my Playstation 4 in September 2015 signaling a sharp uptake in my interest in gaming, with it transforming from a casual hobby to a bona fide lifestyle. But for the most part my problem was my tendency to get so overwhelmed with multiple goals that I end up achieving none of them because I’m spending all my time worrying about them. I’m awful at multi-tasking. 2017 so far has seen me get better at finishing things. There are so many books I want to read and ideally I want to be reading one a week. I’m still a slow reader, but I’m training myself like a pro athlete.

I’ve been trying to mix up my reading as much as I can. Not only have I been reading from new and different genres, and paying attention to things like “Am I reading too many male authors?” or “Am I reading too many British/American authors?” but I have also been returning to the books that have suffered for years on my bookshelf as well as indulging my new tastes. One such book that has remained on my shelf for a long time, perhaps even predating my university years, is James Salter’s magnum opus A Sport and a Pastime. Salter is what I think of as being a “writer’s writer”. He is revered within the world of writing, even if he is not the most popular author on the market, or his books aren’t cherished by schools alongside teachers’ favorites such as Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird. No, Salter’s voice seems to speak to writers. His sentences are so perceptive. That to me was what impressed me the most about this book. The way he can give a voice to a house or a hotel room or a small French town. His descriptions of France are absolutely mesmerizing. I wish I were half the writer Salter was. He has a keen, intrusive, almost omniscient eye for human behavior, and captures to me a basic truth about the way we see one another. What we make others into, what we need them to be. That to me is the point of this book.

The basic premise is very simple. In terms of plot there isn’t much; there are no twists to speak of, there is no suspense. It seems so real. It recounts an affair between an American college dropout from Yale and a young French girl. But the whole thing is framed through the voyeuristic imagination of an unreliable narrator, who we come to learn is a photographer and an American expat. What’s important is not “truth” in the journalistic, factual sense. It’s the basic truths of how we perceive one another, and what we mean to one another. Our desire to create heroes out of people. The narrator flat out admits that he is imagining most of the events of the book. What’s important to us is not what actually happens, but what is revealed by the way the narrator perceives the two characters. He is obsessed with both of them, he is sexually frustrated, he is inadequate, emasculated, and jealous. He has a complex relationship to Dean- the Yale dropout- who he seems to simultaneously idolize and outright hate. Dean seems to represent to him everything he is not; the status of alpha male is given to him by the narrator.

This is, I think, a very masculine book. I have read some of Salter’s short fiction as well- a collection called Last Night– and it is quite excellent. The voice in those stories is similarly very masculine, and I think they and A Sport and a Pastime are a fascinating look into the male identity- its flaws, its fragility, its pitfalls, and its underlying- too often unexamined- sensitivity. It has the feel of other “manly” books, such as those of Henry Miller, and especially the succinct, terse sentences of Ernest Hemingway. I remember watching a news story on the BBC a few years ago that was discussing the release of Salter’s novel All That Is. Here was this author that few people I encountered seemed to know about, and yet the upcoming release of his novel had all the hype and anticipation of a new Blink 182 album. The news story described his novel as being similar to the TV show Mad Men– featuring flawed men who were hard drinkers and rampant womanizers. Hell, the story I remember most from Last Night features a terminally ill wife being euthanized by her husband, who wastes no time in literally going downstairs (thinking she was dead) and having filthy baboon sex with her large-breasted friend.

A Sport and a Pastime definitely falls into the category of an erotic novel. But I don’t want that to put any of you off. The sex scenes are fleeting, never more than a few lines. If the book can be likened to a prime rib steak, the eroticism is merely the seasoning. It adds a flavor. It’s explicit but it never outstays its welcome. You don’t even get so much as a flash of nipple until you’re about 60 pages in anyway. And I feel like each sex scene is there for a reason, and it’s not to titillate, but to explore the psychological profile of the characters, and it acts as a way to chronicle the relationship of Dean and the French girl. It’s about the narrator’s perception of their affair based on his own repressed sexuality, and his view of the French girl as a kind of embodiment of promiscuity. He imagines that their relationship is built on sex because he cannot detach his perception of the girl from sex. For the narrator, it’s the information that lies beyond the closed doors of the various hotel rooms the couple frequents that he seeks so badly, that is most precious to him. To me, the narrator is a sympathetic figure, if not a likable one.

It’s a very compelling novel and I am sure most of you will finish it in less than a week. It has some truly beautiful and atmospheric descriptions of France. I hope you will give it a try. I’m glad I finally got around to reading it. Happy Summer Reading everyone!

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