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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

A Sport and a Pastime’s first line: “September. It seems these luminous days will never end.”

Now a leap from the beginning to the last paragraph of chapter 35, four pages from the end of Salter’s novel.

This passage below describes an experience common to us: of being in a plane, awaiting takeoff. Read the words slowly, savor Salter’s sentences & fragments, see and hear the balance in the prose. Notice the movement of past to present tense, and when the narrative voice edges from third to first person. Understand this “I” is not on board with Dean. For 185 pages this narrator remains unnamed, a benevolent voyeur. We know his profession is photography and his age 34. We also know he has not found the woman or the man he yearns to love.

“Before he (Dean) boarded, the sun was already low at Orly. Almost no wind. A vast, malicious calm. In the distance, blue as winter, the dim roofs of the city. Smoke. The east growing dark. Aboard the plane all is brilliance. Dean sits at the window as they move, in the stillness of evening, towards the runway, the great tires bumping over the concrete joints. The seat-belt signs are lighted. The No Smoking is on. All of a sudden my imagination begins to panic, to rush from one thing to another. I have followed him so long I am sensitive to dangers. They turn smoothly into the direction for takeoff. All the perfect machinery of flight is beginning its motion. The huge, graceful wings are quivering. The engines roar. And now, at the last moment, it begins to move, slowly, with a majesty I cannot bear, for a long time seeming to go no faster until suddenly it is racing past, raising, clearing the ground. It climbs steeply. The soft darkness of the summer sky receives it. The lights grow fainter, the sound, and finally all of France, invisible now, silent, the France of all seasons deep in the silence of night, is left behind.”

Between the first page and this one when Dean leaves France, what did this reader experience? A haunting menage a trois. Not splendor in the grass but in endless rooms… for Dean, a Yale dropout, and the French girl, Anne-Marie, in the region of Burgundy, with the story told in the present tense by the narrator. How is this possible? Writer Reynolds Price, according to the introduction, has read A Sport and a Pastime over and over, trying to understand the mysteries of a story of “inexhaustible complexity and enduring richness.”

Who is this narrator that admits, “I am not telling the truth about Dean. I am inventing him. I am creating him out of my own inadequacies, you must always remember that.” The narrator tells us his “dreams are as important as anything I acquired by stealth. More important because they are the intuitive in its purest state. Without them, facts are no more than a kind of debris, unstrung, like beads.” Earlier the narrator tells us that he remembers certain things exactly as they were, discolored a bit by time, like coins in the pocket of a forgotten suit. “The myriad past, it enters us and disappears,” he says. “Except that within it, somewhere, like diamonds, exist the fragments that refuse to be consumed. Sifting through, if one dares, and collecting them, one discovers the true design.”

And that design, that structure, along with Salter’s luminous prose left contrails in my aging mind. Lubrica y pura, licentious and pure: A Sport and a Pastime by the late, great James Salter.


Next week: That is to be determined!




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