James Salter’s “A Sport and a Pastime” reminds me of a five-star resort. It’s luxurious, oftentimes impractical, but always pleasurable. Don’t go looking for the basics. Everything is extra.
The unnamed narrator and the man he’s obsessed with, Phillip Dean, are not concerned about the mundane things that you and I worry about, like looking for a job or cooking and cleaning. They are Americans living in France. They are young and attractive. Sex is their preoccupation. When they do fret about money or the future, it’s more of an afterthought.
Appropriately, the story is told from the narrator’s POV in the present tense. We’re not supposed to know or care about the past or the goings on elsewhere. The here and now is what matters. The narrator is a keen observer of Dean’s relationship with his 18-year-old French lover, Anne-Marie. He’s a prolific storyteller, so you never quite know where his observations end and his fantasies begin.
This novel is erotic, but decidedly unromantic. When the narrator describes Anne-Marie’s breath as “thin and rotten,” you know right away that you’re nowhere near a romance novel. Salter has an enormous gift for describing the locale. At one point he writes, “The trees stand like brewers in the Place d’Hallencourt. Bricks are laid beneath them. The sidewalks are veined with miss. As one descends, the streets begin to flower out.”
I’ve never been to France and I don’t have the inclination to go. Italy is my favorite European destination. But, by the time I reached page 30 of Salter’s novel, I was gripped by curiosity and I was checking TripAdvisor. Mind you, this is not a travel book. Far from it. The people Salter describes are not always happy to be where they are. It’s a testament to his talent that he’s able to make the setting intriguing, if not attractive. France is a character. When Dean is making love to Anne-Marie, he considers the experience “the real France.”
If you’re looking for a story with a dramatic conflict, or a grand character arc, or a clear socio-political “message,” this novel is probably not for you. Very little happens or changes in this story until its conclusion.
“A Sport and a Pastime ” was published in 1967, practically a lifetime away. It’s languid, rich, and bourgeois. Is it worth reading? You bet. If you’re like me, it will have you thinking of Paris, Dijon, Autun, Nancy, and all the dreamy French towns James Salter brings to life in this memorable novel.