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A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter (North Point: $7.50, paperback; 191 pp.)

March 23, 1986|Elizabeth Benedict | Benedict's first novel, "Slow Dancing," was nominated for the 1985 L.A. Times Fiction Prize and The American Book Award. and

Admirers of James Salter's fiction speak of it reverently, with delicacy, almost in awe. He writes about the fragility of things--families, love, sexuality, success--in prose that is as careful and light as a structure made of eggshells.

Of his five novels, "A Sport and a Pastime" is among the best known, along with the more mature "Light Years" (1975) and "Solo Faces" (1979). First published in 1967 and out of print for the last several years, "A Sport and a Pastime" has just been reissued by California's North Point Press.

"A Sport and a Pastime," set in France perhaps 25 years ago, is the story of a highly erotic, exhaustively documented love affair, remarkable in large part because its most intimate details are imagined by our nameless first-person narrator. The lovers are Anne-Marie, an 18-year-old shop girl from a French village--"pretty but cheap"--and Phillip Dean, an aimless Yale dropout in his mid-20s, and a friend of the narrator, another wandering American without a life of his own. In Paris, the narrator carouses half-heartedly with rich, dissolute friends, like Billy, "to whom Cristina used to whisper in those early days that she wanted to leave the party and go make a little boom-boom."

Billy and Cristina offer him their house in the small town of Autun. There he takes photographs, reads and is visited now and then by Dean, when he takes a break from his steamy romance. Our narrator fantasizes about his friend's affair and presents those dreams to us as the central narrative of this lush and doleful novel.

"I am not telling the truth about Dean," he tells us, "I am inventing him. I am cheating him out of my own inadequacies, you must always remember that." It is precisely that which we forget, and which Salter wants us to forget, because for page after page, we are in bed with Dean and Anne-Marie, privy to the details of every act of love ("She begins to roll her hips, to cry out. It's like ministering to a lunatic . . . ."

Like our poor, lonely narrator, we must keep reminding ourselves these are his own fantasies; he has actually been told very little by Dean. "I am afraid of him," he says of Dean, "of all men who are successful in love. That is the source of his power."

Though told largely in the present tense, "A Sport and a Pastime" is the narrator's somewhat distant recollection of this period of several months. Using the present tense gives the events--the love scenes, the lovers' final parting, when Dean decides to return to America--the immediacy and reality the narrator wishes they had had for himself.

He wonders "over the empty plates in restaurants, in cafes where only the waiters remain, (whether) by any rearrangement of events, by any accident, could she . . . have become mine?" She is his in his fantasies, in the same way that she is ours, as a character in a book.

It is the tension between the thrilling immediacy of this affair and the frequent reminders from the narrator that it is all "made up" that gives "A Sport and a Pastime" its haunting quality. And it is Salter's remarkable prose that carries one along on this lonely, lustful journey.

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