Jesuachristo, the prose! More than any other writer I have read, Salter could do so much with so little. He has a scalpel-like precision with his prose — it is always just enough, nothing more. Quite a few writers should read Salter if for no other reason than studying how a few simply crafted sentences can say more than endless flowery paragraphs that serve more as literary gymnastics than good writing. The opening chapters of A Sport and a Pastime, where the narrator is travelling via train through the French countryside, read like a Van Gogh painting.
“Canals, rich as jade, pass beneath us, canals in which wide barges lie. The water is green with scum. One could almost write on the surface.
Hayfields in long, rectangular patterns. There are hills now, not very high. Poplars. Empty soccer fields. Montereau — a boy on a bicycle waiting near the station. There are churches with weathervanes. Smalls streams with rowboats moored beneath the trees…. The pattern of fields is passing, some pale as bread, others sea-dark.”
You can see the canvas in those lines, but also get that sense of velocity. And Salter never falters in his precision throughout the length of the novel. Some may grow weary of his delivery, but even at moments where it feels as if the train is going off the tracks a bit, Salter will deliver a single paragraph, so perfectly crafted and beautiful, you’re reeled right back into the story.
As for that story, A Sport and a Pastime could almost be read as Henry Miller trying to rewrite The Great Gatsby. Sex abounds in a lurid tale of a young upper-crust American dropout who falls for a simple French country girl as his mistress — “the real France,” which is more his obsession than the girl herself. Salter, however, is better in his depiction of sex than Miller ever could be. Miller was obsessed with every gritty detail, whereas Salter, being a more confident writer, could give you flashes and glimpses that spoke more to passion and the emotional tie between the characters than where they were placing their body parts.
We’re told of their romance by a much older narrator who reveals that the events are a confusion of his own perceptions and dreams. This is where Salter one-ups Fitzgerald. The narrator admits that this is more a jealous fantasy of his young counterpart’s life than a clear record of actual events. Occasionally their paths cross, but the narrator, whose own love life is stale and uneventful except for lusting after divorcee, is obsessed with that life he cannot live, the interior life of two younger people caught up in one another.
However, the catch, without revealing anything, is that the narrator has age and reality on his side. That French girl is not as perfect as the American would hope. She is the real France, which he’s not quite prepared for. And the narrator knows where this fling is headed. He’s been there, and even in lusting for it as much as the American wants his perfect French lover, he knows both are futile endeavors.