April 12, 2011 | by J. D. Daniels
Our Spring Revel is tonight, April 12. In anticipation of the event, The Daily is featuring a series of essays celebrating James Salter, who is being honored this year with The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize.
Imagine: there is a man who likes to climb mountains. It’s the only thing he likes. Of course he likes women, too, but he won’t put them at the center of his life. “I’m not really a great climber,” he says, “I’m not that talented.” He just loves it more than anyone else does, or can. But he isn’t climbing. His name is Vernon Rand, and he’s bumming around, roofing, picking up work out in Los Angeles.
And then one day, playing father to his girlfriend’s twelve-year-old son, he encounters his old climbing companion, Jack Cabot. That they are lost brothers is admitted outright, but not that Cabot is Rand’s animating force, prophet, bird or devil, tempter sent.
As for Rand, he had had a brilliant start and then defected. Something had weakened in him. That was long ago. He was like an animal that has wintered somewhere, in the shadow of a hedgerow or barn, and one morning, mud-stained and dazed, shakes itself and comes to life. Sitting there [with Cabot], he remembered past days, their glory. He remembered the thrill of height.
That’s all it takes, Cabot’s tapping on the door. That in Rand which loves the mountain stirs.
There was something he had to tell her. He was leaving, she said. She could hardly hear him.
He repeated it. He was going away.
“When?” she asked foolishly. It was all she could manage to say.
“Tomorrow,” she said.
WHAT IS THERE to say about this brilliant novel? What can be said? Brilliant—what does it mean? It means shining as it falls, like the falling coin in its first paragraph.
They were at work on the roof of the church. All day from above, from a sea of light where two white crosses crowned twin domes, voices came floating down as well as occasional pieces of wood, nails, and once, in the dreamlike air, a coin that seemed to flash, disappear, and then shine again for an endless time before it met the ground. Beneath the eucalyptus branches a signboard covered with glass announced the Sunday sermon: Sexuality and God.
Gary, Rand’s fellow-roofer, though warned to put in another cleat, nearly falls from that roof. Rand saves him.
Gary felt weak, ashamed. “The scaffolding would have stopped me,” he said.
“You’d have shot right past it.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Like a bird,” Rand said.
And later—in France, on Pointe Lachenal—that scene recurs:
“Do you know how to self-arrest?”
“Not really,” Love said.
Paul Love is one of the many pseudo-Cabots for whom Rand must occasionally settle.
Suddenly Love, who had lost all thought of danger, slipped. His feet went out from under him. He began to accelerate.
He did not make the slightest attempt to help himself but slid like a rag doll …
“Didn’t you hear me?” Rand cried, hurrying up to him.
“Oh, yes, I heard you,” he said gazing up. “I heard you. I said, he is my friend.”
“My very good friend,” Love said.
No wonder, then, that Rand climbs the Frêney, “a buttress, inaccessible and huge, on the side of Mont Blanc,” alone: even Love cannot be trusted.
RAND HAS GONE feral, “filling with wildness like a prophet from the Old Testament.” “He looks like some kind of holy man,” Cabot’s wife says. Driven on by the courage that is Cabot, Rand soon exceeds him: Cabot cannot follow Rand up the fearful Dru.
The brush of a great wing seemed to have passed over Cabot. As if in obedience, slowly, he was bowing. His legs went slack, his arms slipped away. Without a sound he performed a sacred act—he began to fall.
The rope went taut. Cabot was hanging above him and off to one side.
“Jack! Are you all right?”
Cabot’s head was bent, his legs dangling. There was no reply.
One man cannot lift another with the rope, he can only hold him ….
Suddenly the dusk went white with a deafening explosion. Blue-white snakes of voltage came writhing down the cracks.
Lightning struck again. This time his arms and legs shot out from a jolt that reached the ledge. There was a smell of burning rock, brimstone. Hail began to fall. [Rand] was clinging to his courage though it meant nothing. He could taste death in his mouth.
RAND AND CABOT make it, escaping from their high brimstone hell-heaven, returning to earth. Years pass. Rand makes many more brave climbs, and is made famous by them, and is ruined by his success, by his enjoyment of success, by women: “One woman is like another. Two are like another two. Once you begin there is no end.” There is nothing outside a man that, entering into him, can defile him; the things that come out of him, these are the things that defile a man.
Rand is ruined, he surrenders on the Walker. Defeated, he descends on foot to find that Cabot, too, has fallen, though not only from grace:
“Your friend, Cabot …”
“What about him?” The air itself seemed to empty.
“In Wyoming, I think.” He turned to someone else. “Wyoming, n’est-ce pas? Où Cabot est tombé.”
It was Wyoming.
“The Tetons,” Rand said.
“Perhaps. I don’t know.”
“Yes, sure it was the Tetons. Was he hurt?”
“How bad?” […]
He was paralyzed from the waist down, his legs in the limp cloth of a cripple’s pants. The fall had almost killed him; he had been in a coma for a week. At first they thought he would never come out of it and only half of him did.
Now, abandoned by what had formerly driven him on, Rand seeks out and accuses Cabot-as-courage:
Cabot wheeled himself to the table near the door to turn on the lights.
“And if you’ve given up, where does that leave me?”
“I don’t know,” Cabot admitted. He was filling his glass. “I know where it leaves me … Do you believe in death?”
“I suppose so.”
“But you’re not dead.”
“You were always ahead of me,” Rand said. “I’d never have gone to Europe except for you … You gave me all that. You made me do the greatest things of my life … Have you lost your courage? Like me?” Rand said.
“I don’t think so.”
“Can you prove it?” Rand said. He poured his glass half full like an adversary prepared to spend the night and at the same time raised his hand from between his legs. In it, blue and heavy, was a pistol.
Cabot stared at it. “That’s mine,” he remarked.
“You’ve already died,” Rand said.
“I was with you. We were caught up there. Lightning was hitting the peak. You’re not going to back down now?”
I know another story about lightning on a mountain: Moses spoke with the eternal amid lightnings on Sinai’s mountaintop and came down with light shining in his countenance. The eternal had said to Moses, “Write thou these words”: and the words he had heard there, on high, he had written in his own hand. “And when Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone; and they were afraid to come nigh him.”
IN THE END, you could retype the whole novel. For a while I thought I might. I typed thousands of words, quoting and quoting.
It’s easy to know why a bad book is bad. Things are bad because things are bad: badness is the prevailing condition, at all times and everywhere. A thing is bad because it exists, because it is here, in our existence, plane of the fallen, flawed, and finite.
But why is a good book good? It’s hard to know and harder to say. As if we knew any longer, if we ever did, why things are good, why goodness should descend, why it should consent to dwell among us. It is so generous. Perhaps it is enough to describe it.
Solo Faces is a novel about what all real novels are about, what it is like to be alive, if you are, when you are: brilliant, like a coin flashing as it falls from a church top. All will fall, but not everything will shine.
J. D. Daniels lives in Massachusetts.
To read more essays for James Salter Month, click here.