Thursday, May 26, 2011


James Salter has long been described as a 'writer's writer,' which sounds too much like the opposite of a 'reader's writer.' In fact, he's a very good and highly readable writer who has developed a prose style that's both more staccato and often more beautiful than Hemingway's. A Sport and a Pastime is a derivative novel, descending very obviously from the European-set fictions of Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Miller (not a bad trio to emulate, by any means), but the familiarity of setting and subject is overcome by the sheer force of Salter's art. His prose, which at first looks almost as stripped-down as James Ellroy's, soon reveals an unexpected poetic lushness, a painterly sensuality that reminds me of Bonnard (a painter explicitly referenced in the text). Almost every page contains a quotable example of Salter's eye. Here are a few selected at random:

Certain things I remember exactly as they were. They are merely discolored a bit by time, like coins in the pocket of a forgotten suit. (Did I mention that this book was derivative? Yes, this sounds too much like Proust when taken out of context, but within the flow of Salter's short sentences the line of descent is obscured.)

Her body, portions of it, seem to become luminous in his mind. Everything he touches or looks at, the fork, the tablecloth, somehow, by their homeliness, their silence, seem to celebrate that flesh which only a single layer of cloth conceals, does not even conceal, proclaims. (a very long sentence, for Salter)

Mornings with clouds. Windy mornings. Mornings with black wind rushing like water. (This is Salter-style at its most distinctive, like lines from a plein air painter's notebook. The sentence that immediately follows these teeters on the brink of cliche, a brink Salter's prose knows a bit too well.)

Beneath his trunks is a white like fresh bandages. His buttocks are like the inside of an apple. (This lilywhite ass is some of Salter's best work, poetically strong enough even to overcome the silly word 'buttocks.')

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