We’re out this week, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2011 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!
When I try to write about sex, I think back to when I was just out of college and, handy with a makeup brush, took a job to make some extra money doing makeup on a gay-porn film set. On the second day, we filmed a three-way that took up most of the day. The actors struggled: one was hard, the others weren’t, then the others were and the first was not, and so on. After a few hours, the director sent us all out of the room and turned out the lights so the actors could work it out. This was before Viagra—you had to have an honest hard-on to shoot. We waited outside the dark room, the lights out, even the cameramen outside, waiting, until finally we heard the signal, and then the crew rushed back in to film. We turned on the lights.
The actors were made to pause, immediately. I had to touch them up.
They were panting, sweating like athletes. They’d rubbed off most of what I’d put on them. As they held their positions, I touched them up. I thought about how something had happened in the dark that we couldn’t see, an excitement that couldn’t be in the film. It was probably better than what we would film, more interesting.
It seems to me I am always in pursuit of that.
LIZ BENEDICT, a teacher of mine at Iowa, is the person who introduced me to James Salter’s work. We were talking about writing about sex. It was 1993. “Read A Sport and a Pastime,” she said. “If you want to learn to write about sex, read Salter.” I went out to the richly stocked used bookstores of Iowa City, where I easily found the green paperback book published the year I was born. On its nondescript cover, the illustration of a plain room. “A tour-de-force of erotic realism,” the Times reviewer said on the back cover.
All right then, I said to myself, and took the book home.
THE NARRATOR of A Sport and a Pastime is an American photographer living in a borrowed house in what he calls “the real France,” Autun, a small town where he hopes to take some career-changing photographs in the spirit of Atget. When he meets Phillip Dean, a golden boy Yale drop-out, the narrator invites him for a visit, in the casual way that means nothing, and Dean takes him at his word. Dean shows up at the borrowed house in a borrowed car, a beautiful Delage that belongs to a friend who “can’t drive it as much as it should be driven” and immediately starts an affair with Anne-Marie Costallat, an eighteen-year-old French waitress who had already caught the narrator’s attention. The narrator’s in love, in a way, with both of them, or with their affair, entranced by the quick way Dean seduces Anne-Marie. The novel builds itself out of that fascination, telling the story out of what he sees, what he is told by each of them, and what he imagines. Out of the force of his desire, the nameless narrator of the novel becomes an omniscient narrator, at least in relation to all things regarding Dean and Anne-Marie.
Dean and Anne-Marie were knowable to me, types I more or less understood. The narrator less so. He is like someone managing some grave hurt, unspoken in any direct way. But I gave myself to the book (and to him) when the narrator summed Dean up like this:
Dean has a small, straight mouth and wide-set, intelligent eyes. Hair that the summer has dried. It’s of schoolboy heroes that I am thinking, boys from the east, ringleaders, soccer backs slender as girls.
With just one line, we have a man’s hair as a way of telling time, as if we’ve watched it dry while he sleeps. The “schoolboy heroes” line perfectly sums up the attractiveness of that kind of youth—the way Dean seems to change a little into a girl in the corner of his eye and then back again.
Dean understands his attractiveness to others, he even invites his new photographer friend to be a spectator:
In a room with every light burning, Dean opens wide his arms.
“Where have you been,” he says. “I have a surprise for you.”
He doesn’t answer right away.
“You’re going to be pleased,” he assures me, stopping before the mirror to look at himself from one angle, then the other, his movements light as a bird’s. Mon vieux, he is singing to himself off key, vous êtes beau, vous êtes beau.
A few moments later, as Anne-Marie sits with them at a table, it is very much as if Dean brought her for the narrator.
Anne-Marie Costallat, born October 8, 1944. I was beginning high school and masturbating twice a day, curling over it like a dead leaf, when she was born, in a bed of violets, as she says—all French mothers tell their children that.
The narrator is watching Dean because he’s someone the narrator, and the American colony there for that matter, all desire; they either want to be him or be with him, and they sometimes can’t tell the difference. By the time Dean reveals he has very little money, by the time it is clear he is someone used to borrowing the things of the hapless or indifferent rich, who themselves cannot care quite enough about these things, by then the narrator doesn’t care to object; it’s clear Dean can stay as long as he wants at the borrowed house with the borrowed car. The narrator wants whatever this is, he has already been possessed by Dean and Anne-Marie, and he isn’t ready to let them go. His desire for them both becomes an omniscient narrative, built to possess both of them and all of what passes between them. This narrator is not so much a photographer as a photographic plate, an exposure left open and impossibly able to give back an image of all of their affair.
Realized in this novel, as in few others, is the peculiar passage of time in an affair like this, when the sex takes over one’s days and nights, and it seems just always around the next corner or the last one. This in turn transforms the structure and pacing of the narrative.
Looking in the mirror together, as Dean holds her breasts from behind, she says of one, “This one grew first.” When Dean pauses in fucking her and begins again,
She comes to life with a soft exhausted sound, like someone saved from drowning.
Part of what I loved in the novel was the ordinariness, how it allowed the characters asymmetry, even ugliness, terror, strangeness—how it made room for all of it. Some other favorite moments:
She begins to strip like a roommate and climb into bed.
They have fallen asleep. Dean wakes first, in the early afternoon. He unfastens her stockings and slowly rolls them off. Her skirt is next and then her underpants. She opens her eyes. The garter belt he leaves on, to confirm her nakedness. He rests his head there.
Her hand touches his chest and begins to fall in excruciating slow designs.
He lies still as a dog beneath it, still as an idiot.
The next morning she is recovered. His prick is hard. She takes it in her hand. They always sleep naked. Their flesh is innocent and warm. In the end she is arranged across the pillows, a ritual she accepts without a word.
It is half an hour before they fall apart, spent, and call for breakfast. She eats both her rolls and one of his.
“There was a lot,” she says.
She glistens with it. The inside of her thighs is wet.
“How long does it take to make again?” she asks.
Dean tries to think. He is remembering biology.
“Two or three days,” he guesses.
“Non, non!” she cries. That is not what she meant.
She begins to make him hard again. In a few minutes he rolls her over and puts it in as if the intermission were ended. This time she is wild. The great bed begins creaking. Her breath becomes short. Dean has to brace his hands on the wall. He hooks his knees outside her legs and drives himself deeper.
“Oh,” she breathes, “that’s the best.”
When he comes, it downs them both.
Salter’s lovers are at odd angles to each other, one minute noticing bad teeth or breath, the next, fucking until they feel like gods and the world itself is known to them. And then they, and we, return to the world, and to the impossibilities that push any of us together with anyone else.
Too much writing about sex tries to either make it prettier or more serious, sexier or funnier or shocking, or anything, really, except what it is. On its own terms, sex is information. This I learned from reading Salter. In one scene, Dean asks her if she wants to read a magazine while she gets used to him inside her. Even the banality of it becomes erotic. Reading Salter’s sentences, I saw what I knew of sex, that sex is a moment in which you are known and knowable. Whatever it is you desire appears from behind the veil of shame or fantasy or nostalgia, or sheer impossibility, and in its presence, you are revealed to yourself. Porn obscures this; porn is about the fantasy of the viewer, not the mixed fantasies, realities, and disappointments of the actors in the room. Truth might get you off, but porn doesn’t deal in maybes, was never interested in unreliable, unpredictable truth-telling. When my teacher told me to read James Salter, what she meant was that this kind of sex writing is about you, the reader, in a way a fantasy isn’t. It describes sex so that it tells you something about the story and the characters and yourself, all at once.
It seems to me that the writers we love most are those who manage to capture something we ourselves have thought and rejected, for being forbidden, dangerous, elusive, something that if we made room for it would undo something else we want to keep, so we force it away—literature as a catalogue of rejected thoughts. For the way they can hold onto what the rest of us would put away as dangerous, they become heroes, the ones who emerge with the one thing we hoped to keep secret, but know we need. When I say to you James Salter is one of my heroes, that is what I mean.
Alexander Chee is the author, most recently, The Queen of the Night, a novel forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
To read more essays for James Salter Month, click here.