Friday, December 3, 2010

Forgotten book: Solo Faces by James Salter

James Salter's 1979 novel tells the story of Rand, a solitary man in his late 20s, with a fatal attraction to mountain climbing. We meet him on a hot, hazy day doing a roofing job on a church in Los Angeles. Quiet, focused, he watches warily the heedless young man working with him and then catches him just in the last moment as he falls from the roof. This same drama plays out again later in the novel, as Rand saves the lives of other mountain climbers, high in the French Alps, in wintry, bone chilling conditions.

One case of heroics makes him a media celebrity, and for a time he is an American in Paris enjoying his 15 minutes of fame. But the time passes, and he returns again to the austere, stoic life of a climber, growing older, with no assets, no home, no one who will love him on his own terms. He has only his desire to continue climbing and the need to take ever greater risks. Emptied of every other need, his lonely heroism is an ironic portrayal of the individual who strives against all odds to achieve impossible goals.

Salter's writing style is crystal clear, always vivid. He tries for no special effects, just a precise choice of words, sentence after sentence, and an unblinking eye for detail. If you have the slightest trepidation about heights, the descriptions of the climbs make your heart race. Master of his matter-of-fact style, Salter moves beyond emotion and the romance of adventure to capture the excitement of being fully in the present moment and intensely alive.

Coming up:  another 3-minute western


  1. "The White Spider", by Hienrich Harrer, a german climber before the War. Then an explorer after. I have read many of Yvonne Chuinards books, his ice climbing days were fascinating. So I shall probably read this book too.

  2. It may not be my kind of read but I love the sharp photo and title. Solo Faces. Cool.

  3. I remember reading something by Salter. Maybe Light Years-have to check it out.