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Posts Tagged ‘A Sport and a Pastime’

Granted, LAST NIGHT, is the first book of James Salter’s I read, and maybe that’s why I feel compelled to say I’ve still yet to see anything with its power in my life, but I’m pretty sure Salter might be the greatest writer who ever gazed upon the alphabet.

No seriously.

Just listen to this:

“They ate dinner in silence.  Her husband did not look at her.  Her face annoyed him, he did not know why.  She could be good-looking but there were times when she was not.  Her face was like a series of photographs, some of which ought to have been thrown away.  Tonight was like that.”

Let me say here that all quotes in this post are from LAST NIGHT, just so we’re clear.

The pockets of Salter’s critics say, although the New York born wordsmith may be a great stylist, he is not an important writer, one that will have the lasting impact on his society as did, say, Hemingway.  But the mark of an important writer is how much insight into the human condition he can provide.  And style is merely a meter by which to measure how well that message is put across.  It’s the equivalent of saying, okay, this person can sing like a bird.  Okay, you listen to them sing and you get the story behind the song, if there is one, because the instrument that was used to communicate is beautiful and effective.  It’s the same thing with Salter.  His sentences are so beautiful and wonderfully designed, polished, as he says, like rare gems, each one, so as to communicate, without any sign of fat or excess verbosity, exactly the same feeling you might have had at one time in your life, or someone you might know.

And tension, don’t even talk to me about tension with this guy.

In the first story of this collection, Salter tightens the vice grip slowly and then just keeps twisting.  Here we have a couple in the story, “Comet,” who have married, but there are hints in the opening paragraphs things are just off center.  She wore a white dress, but Salter doesn’t just leave it at that, no, instead, he takes that opportunity to start planting seeds and building character.  “It had been a while since Adele had married and she wore white: white pumps with low heels, a long white skirt that clung to her hips, a filmy blouse with a white bra underneath, and around her neck a string of freshwater pearls.”  What’s happening here is that seed of tension is being placed, very gently by a practiced and clearly talented writer.  This isn’t just an ordinary marriage.  This is a second marriage and then later we’re given additional hints of the tension already building and the twisting yet to come.

“Behind her as best man, somewhat oblivious, her young son was standing, and,  pinned to her panties as something borrowed was a small silver disc, actually a St. Christopher medal her father had worn in the war; she had several times rolled down the waistband of her skirt to show it to people.”

Why is this lady essentially showing her panties to people during her wedding?  It’s an unsettling image for me, personally.  And this continues to build throughout the story with the woman’s story of her ex-husband, the one that Philip is forced to endure time and again, that has, itself, some unsettling details.

All of this tension suggests one thing, and it’s a theme I see throughout the collection – that of longing and regret.

Another good example of regret as theme and foundation comes in the short story, “My Lord You,” which depicts a woman unhappy with her current life/ husband and sees the possibility of something new and exciting in this poet character Salter ushers onto stage.  The quote at the beginning of this post is from that story and illustrates the indifference her husband has toward her.  There are some really painful moments earlier in that story where we see the husband makes little or no effort to offer attention much less discussion in regard to some of his wife’s longing and perhaps even lust for this poet character, Brennan, who pretty much stains not only the opening scene but the remainder of the story.  From the start, we know Brennen is will be a driving force in disrupting the fabric of these people’s lives.

“There were crumpled napkins on the table, wine-glasses still with dark remnant in them, coffee stains, and plates with bits of hardened Brie.  Beyond the bluish windows the gardens lay motionless beneath the birdsong of summer morning.  Daylight had come.  It had been a success except for one thing: Brennan.”

I can’t help but quote Salter in long form, he’s just too good.  Even writing the sentences Salter himself once sat and wrote bring a tingle to my fingers, at the very tips, magic somehow to even have the great honor of forming those common letters into the same passages Salter himself wrote with such care.

Read also: A Sport and a Pastime (the novel widely considered his masterwork).

Read also: Everything else he’s written.

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