In memory of James Salter, who died last week, the Daily is republishing a series of essays from 2011, when Salter received The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize. In today’s piece, Alexander Chee looks at Salter’s approach to sex in A Sport and a Pastime.
To learn more about Salter, read his 1993 Art of Fiction interview or one of his stories from the magazine: “Sundays” (1966), “Am Strande von Tanger” (1968), “Via Negativa” (1972), and “Bangkok” (2003) are available in full online.
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.