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Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Sport and a Pastime

For its first fifty-something pages, James Salter's 1967 novel "A Sport and a Pastime" amounts to little more than a befuddling hodgepodge of Hemingwayesque prose and seemingly meaningless pronouncements posing as deep reflections on life. It is all very disorienting, as Salter makes it difficult to determine who is speaking, or where we are in the narrative, often bouncing from the past to the present within the same paragraph with no indication to situate the reader. The unnamed narrator is not just unreliable, he is inscrutable.

Then Philip and Anne-Marie have sex. Then they have more sex. Indeed, the rest of this short novel is pretty much just sex with brief pauses to eat and stare at hillsides. Salter's prose, with its wistfulness and air of mysteriousness, works much better in conjunction with this love affair, between an American college dropout and a shopgirl. Their relationship outside their sexual chemistry is largely a mystery. Indeed, Salter's narrator admits that he is conjuring up most of these details for himself. He wasn't really there most of the time (he certainly might have made the bedroom scenes more awkward.)

Salter's writing about sex is certainly compelling, but does that alone make for a good novel? I for one am not sure that it does. I just don't think you can tell much about a character by the way that they fuck. It's only near the end that Philip shows his true nature, as his money runs short and he looks for ways to get enough to go back to America. Anne-Marie never really does become a character, though that it perhaps an artistically defensible choice. The narrator is infatuated with her himself, despite knowing little about her besides how beautiful she is. There is also a very off-putting undercurrent of racism recurring throughout the narrative.

A Sport and a Pastime may get your heart racing at certain points, but it will also leave you unfulfilled.

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