That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed writers who concern themselves with the question. Though I haven’t read any Hemingway recently, I have very much enjoyed him in the past. And as readers of this blog know, I enjoy hard-boiled detective writing, which is as much as anything else concerned with a man’s ability, when the world tries to push him around, to push back harder.
But in James Salter’s Solo Faces (1979), the problem of guts becomes a big part of the novel near the end, and it pretty much derails what has until that point been a smart, compelling book about mountain climbing. For most of the book, Salter tells about a man, Gary Rand, who is compelled above all else to climb more and more difficult mountains, and about the wreckage—physical and emotional—that such a compulsion leaves in its wake. Other climbers make memorable appearances, as friends and rivals, and so do the women Rand sleeps with and lives with.
Salter’s language is spare, but his imagery is precise and memorable, crafted and polished—but never in a way that distracts from the object being described. Take this pair of sentences about a train journey:
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.
Or a depiction of the patrons of an alpine pub:
There is a strain of English whose faces are somehow crude as if they were not worth finishing or touching with color.
Or contrast this description of a quiet village
Down a curving dawn street in the stillness, at the hour when shutters are still closed and all that distinguishes this century from the last are empty cars ranked along the gutters, Rand walked.
with an earlier one of Los Angeles
Above Los Angeles, the faint sound of traffic hung like haze. The air had a coolness, an early clarity. The wind was coming from the sea which as much as anything gives the city its aura. Morning light flooded down, onto the shops, the awnings, the leaves of every tree.
When Salter applies this precision to the act of climbing a mountain, the narrative slows perceptibly. Each move of hand and foot becomes a deeply felt struggle. As he depicts that intense sharpening of focus, the forcible ejection from the climber’s mind of all thoughts and impressions aside from those essential to survival, it becomes clear that this is why people climb. There may be other reasons, but this one would be sufficient: when climbing, nothing else matters. Nothing else even is. It's the elements of addiction stripped bare.
There are moments of great suspense in Solo Faces, as when Rand’s fellow climber is terribly injured halfway up the face of a mountain, and there are moments of deep understanding of people and relationships. A scene where Rand’s girlfriend reveals she’s pregnant is reminiscent of—and as good as—Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants.”
But towards the end of the book, Salter loses his way. It’s as if explaining climbing itself—and making it real for those of us who have never attempted it—wasn’t quite enough for him. That’s when the real thinking about toughness starts, and it culminates in what I tend to think is one of the great cop-out scenes available to a writer: a game of Russian roulette. The scene is a failure, but the book to that point has been so strong that it can’t be entirely wrecked.
I was put on to Solo Faces by my co-worker, Jim (the same one with whom I was discussing Roosevelt the other day), who assures me that this theme is not one that always preoccupies Salter. Knowing that, I’ll give him another try. Anyone who can write a sentence like this
The silence was mounting, like a bill that would have to be paid.
is worth reading more of.