James Salter’s prose style in A Sport and a Pastime (1967) is spare, fluid, and often lyrical. His major influence, probably, is Hemingway. Salter writes mostly in simple sentences, with a phrase here and there, and with few if any clauses. There’s little elaboration of his central thoughts and meanings. He relies to an extent (like Hemingway) on dialogue, but mostly it is the clean, clear, often beautiful prose that carries one through his novel. His ability to create tone, mood, especially in the final pages of this narrative, is impressive.
Set in the 1960s in France, A Sport and a Pastime describes the friendship of two young men, Dean and the narrator, as they travel and live in Paris and outlying regions of France. It is a novel of imagination, and almost nothing in it may really happen, in a literal sense. The narrator invents events or characters, transposes wishes and desires from his own life into the imagined life of his friend. It’s possible that the narrator is in love with Dean, or that the he works out his jealousy about Dean’s romantic relationships by inventing and writing about them. The narrator vents his own sexual dissatisfaction by imagining in graphic terms his friend’s sexual relationship with a teenage girl. His imagined narratives are a form of wish-fulfillment. For much of the novel, each relatively short chapter ends with or at least involves a candid description of sex between Dean and his lover Anne-Marie. Dean is a Harvard drop-out with no certain source of income other than what he can convince his father or sister to give, and what he can earn from tutoring. It’s amazing how far he can make the money he does have go. (Though we have to remember that much if not all that he does with it is what his friend the narrator imagines for him).
Anne-Marie is a lower middle-class working girl who has had a few other relationships before she meets Dean. Dean is alternately self-conscious about Anne-Marie’s lower-class status, worried about losing her, worried about marrying her, worried about what she’ll do when he leaves. It’s clear that the girl has similar worries, but most of the time we’re not concerned with her except as a willing and avid recipient of whatever kind of sex it is that Dean wishes to have. It’s almost incidental that Anne Marie has a name. She’s just the receptacle of his sexual needs, and of the narrator’s.
This is Salter’s most famous novel, the one that earned him his modest reputation. It seems somehow dated. I’m no sexual puritan, but I sometimes felt during my reading of it not only a voyeur but even an exploiter of Anne Marie.