I stayed up very late over the last two nights finishing James Salter’s 1967 novel A Sport and a Pastime. It may be the most beautiful novel I’ve ever read.

It’s about sex. It’s about how sex intersects with human nature inside and outside the sexual relationship. I think its beauty stems from how the sex is depicted, how the relationships are depicted, and how description and atmospherics are used to convey emotional information. (I’ve read that the novel broke ground on how directly a literary novel could address sex. I bet the novel was a pioneer also in its understated and poetic use of description to get across the characters’ emotional states. I recently finished Michael Ondaatje’s 2011 novel The Cat’s Table, and it may owe something to Salter’s sensitive and spare use of description for emotional content.)

Here’s what A Sport and a Pastime answers for me:

  1. How do you write an honest and compelling narrative about sex without seeming clinical, crude, or salacious? What words do you use for specific organs and acts? How specific does a writer need to be to convey a character’s experience and still leave work for the reader’s imagination?
  2. How do you write about what someone begins to mean to you because you will not, yourself, do what he does or that part of what he does that represents, however imperfectly, what the currently most essential part of you wants or needs to do?
  3. How can a narrator report the actions of an actor (that is, a non-writer) and examine, without distracting from the act, what the actor’s acts are doing inside the narrator?

As far as question #3 goes, A Sport and a Pastime beats out one of my favorite novels that also answers the same question, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men.  (And the novels include similar scenes in their denouements (spoiler alert): after the actor dies, the narrator somewhat awkwardly commiserates with the actor’s woman. A feeling of depletion pervades most of the scene.)

A Sport and a Pastime contains not one false note. It’s like Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury in that respect, and maybe in another: each novel was its respective author’s favorite, probably because it represented to him the fulfillment of writing’s promise and the promise of more.