James Salter: Solo Faces

James Salter was my biggest revelation of last year, when I read his novel Light Years in March and immediately knew that nothing else would touch it for the next nine months (a self-fulfilling prophecy). His is a sparse output, and I was happy to wait until now to read his last novel, Solo Faces, just reissued by Penguin in their Modern Classics range. By ‘last’ I mean most recent, though that’s misleading as the book was published in 1979. Salter says he has another novel on the way – “it’s going to be terrific. Maybe. It could be” – but at 83, and averaging one book a decade, ‘last’ could also mean last.

Solo Faces continues Salter’s practice of writing about peculiarly male occupations: flying fighter planes, mountaineering, adultery. However this is the polar opposite of lad lit, and his prose, although spare, is too exquisite to invite comparisons with Hemingway. We see from the opening paragraph that he is a master of rhythm:

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 moment before it met the ground.

So here we are: man’s work, roofing a church, at a precarious height. Among the workers is Rand, his solid, blunt, mildly suggestive name summing him up in a syllable. As he saves a colleague’s life in the opening chapter (“Just at that moment the world gave way – his foot slipped off the cleat. Instantly he was falling”), the scene is set.

Rand, feeling trapped in America (“he had stood at society’s edge envying its light and warmth, wanting to be part of it, determined not to be”), in and out of casual relationships (“he hadn’t yet learned that something always comes to save you”), travels to Europe to be alone and to enter into unarmed combat with the great mountains of France. They are described with awestruck glory: “a great dome of rock, its shoulders gleaming in the sun … so immense that it cannot be seen” – and then there is Mont Blanc:

It seemed to drown him, to rise with an infinite slowness like a wave above his head. There was nothing that could stand against it, nothing that could survive. Through crowded terminals, cities, rain, he had carried certain hopes and expectations, vague but thrilling. He was dozing on them like baggage, numbed by the journey, and then, at a certain moment, the clouds had parted to reveal in brilliant light the symbol of it all. His heart was beating in a strange, insistent way, as if he were fleeing, as if he had committed a crime.

Salter does not compromise just as Rand does not compromise. He presents his hero mythically (“he looked like a figure in medieval battle, lost in the metal din, in glinting planes of sunshine, dust that rose like smoke”) and – to coin a phrase – asympathetically. Rand, like the book he fills corner to corner, can be maddening, full of himself, but also admirable for his lack of compromise and his willingness to engage in battle with the world and himself. He quotes Colette – “il faut payer” – and Rand does pay for his obsession, by sacrificing stability. One lover puts it succinctly:

“Going from woman to woman, from place to place, like a dog in the street, that fulfils you?”

Well, we know what fulfils Rand (“when he climbed, life welled up, overflowed in him”), but in time he must face not only other people who share his passion, but the consequences of greatness: renown, attention, even immortality.

Salter writes so well that during the many climbing scenes in Solo Faces, the very air seems to chill and thin. Yet it is Rand’s inscrutability which drives the book and the reader. In literary fiction it is unusual to read a character so defined by masculinity, so that Rand can seem less a presence than an absence, defined most clearly in others’ reactions to him. His self-involvement might seem like a particular type of maleness itself. When he does experience a connection – with another as solitary as him – it is epiphanic, and it derives from the place – the top of a mountain – as much as the person.

There was an understanding between them, the kind that has its roots at the very source of life. There were days they would always remember: immense, heart-breaking effort and at the top, what rapture, they had shaken each other’s hand with glowing faces, their very being confirmed.


  1. I am interested in your Salter journey, mainly, I think, because I don’t share it. I have read all his work and quite appreciated the books as I read them. My problem is that with the exception of Light Years, a few months later I can’t remember anything about them. The excerpts in this review (and I know I should never judge from excerpts, but it has been some time since I read the book) suggest why — Salter’s writing is complex and intriguing at the time but over time becomes just too precious for my taste. I realize you don’t share that opinion; I guess I am more interested in why I find this author interesting on first blush and not much after that. And I will admit it is easier to read a review and ponder this than it is to go back and reread the books.

  2. In his autobiography, Salter is somewhat disparaging about Solo Faces, saying it was a commissioned work and the writing lacked magic. I certainly didn’t get that impression when I read the novel some years ago, it struck me as being just as good as anything he’s ever written, and gripped me totally about a subject – mountain climbing – which in other hands might have left me indifferent, just as other books of his interested me in the exploits of fighter pilots, another subject I might otherwise have thought not for me.

    Great, great writer.

  3. Great writer, yes. In the way he can barely write a sentence, or combination of sentences, without taking me unawares, amazed. Then I read them again: how does he do this? There’s a risk here (summarised for me years ago in a review in the Listener – decades ago, not years –of Updike, in which the reviewer – Derwent May? Francis Wyndham? – complained that the wondrousness of the style got in the way of its subject. Nabokov territory). I haven’t read all of Salter but the last book of stories disappointed: the style still there but the subject matter too often suffocated, so many of the characters doomed from the start and so their tales robbed of surprise. Dusk – an earlier book of stories – is still magical. The very simple but also subtle structure of A Sport and a Pastime makes this surely one of the cleverest books about sex, because the reader is never quite sure whether the descriptions are meant to be taken straight or are the fantasising of the narrator.

    I trust fiction a lot more than biography but am open to memoirs: should I read Salter’s Burning the Days?

    (Oh, I’ve just followed the link to John’s review of this. Maybe I won’t. But this can get very scary – if I was going there, I should have gone to that book before John got to it.)

  4. Interesting review, it does sound quite similar to The Hunters as you describe it (which I was going to recommend to you, until I saw quite early in the review that you had already covered it). I thought The Hunters spectacularly well written, really pared back prose which somehow evoked the cold and altitude and loneliness.

    Interesting comment by Howard, I can see that Salter himself might be less pleased with the novel if he wrote it to an extent to order, but that doesn’t mean his talent wouldn’t still shine through producing a work of real quality despite his own reservations.

    I’ll read this one I suspect, but I already have A Sport and a Pastime at home and haven’t read that yet, I must go and take a look at your writeup of it, I’d missed you were doing a Salter overview.

  5. Well I’m not doing an overview as such Max, or at least not a planned one. I read A Sport and a Pastime many years ago, before (re)discovering Salter last year, and haven’t written about it here. I believe it’s Salter’s favourite among his novels, so certainly worth a look, and I will read it again myself sometime. His other – second – novel, Cassada (originally published in different form as The Arm of Flesh) is out of print in the UK but I picked up a copy second-hand. It’s also about fighter pilots.

    Howard, I remember from Burning the Days that Salter was dismissive of Solo Faces, but I didn’t realise he had written it as a commission. I agree that Salter’s ability here – as with The Hunters – is to interest me in a completely ‘uninteresting’ subject.

    Charles, funny you should mention (albeit negatively) his recent collection Last Night, as I was going to suggest it to Kevin as an example of Salter’s prose which he might not find ‘precious’ (Kevin, I’m not blind to that quality in Salter’s prose, though the word I used above was ‘portentous’ which is I suppose slightly different). Dusk is the only book of his that I don’t have, and I’m keen to remedy that, particularly after your recommendation. (Well, I did discover another one he published with his wife a couple of years ago, a foodie’s book of days called Life is Meals – the title comes from Light Years – which I’ll not rush out for just yet.)

    I would place Solo Faces below both Light Years and The Hunters, but it is still to me a fascinating book.

  6. I went looking for “portentous” but didn’t find it — I did find “carefully chosen and polished” and “virtuosic brilliance” in previous reviews, both of which I think are very good descriptions. I don’t dislike reading Salter. I do find that the books don’t stay with me very long. He may be one of those authors that I have to read more than once to overcome my first impression where the writing dominates so much that I lose track of what it is about. I do appreciate writers who take their time and hence have a very limited output (John Williams is another example — John Berger seems to do much the same thing, but publishes more often) so maybe the key is for me to take more time when I read the book. That certainly applies to the two Johns and given that all of Salter’s books are tightly written and short, I’ll consider adjusting my reading strategy when I come back to these books.

  7. Charles, don’t miss out on reading Burning the Days. I know John wasn’t so keen on it, but I think it’s one of his finest works, and one of the best autobiographies (if not the best) I have ever read.

  8. Gosh, you’re right Kevin: I was sure I had used ‘portentous’ in the sentence beginning “Rand, like the book he fills corner to corner, can be…” but I must have edited it out or rethought it. And speaking of Williams, I really am going to read Stoner any day now…

    Charles, I agree with Howard about Burning the Days. I wasn’t keen on it, but looking back, I can’t figure out the hell why. I might be taking up Howard’s advice myself once I’ve been through all Salter’s work.

  9. John: Glad I caught you out — it has never happened before and, I suspect, I’ll wait some years until it happens again. Besides, the other references were much better anyway (although I will admit “portentous” does fit in the sentence you reference).

    Good luck with Stoner, which I quite like, although I think if I had to make a choice I’d take Butcher’s Crossing as my favorite. Part of that would be my Western North America, cowboy background.

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