So much strikes home for me in Solo Faces by James Salter that perhaps you should not trust my review. (My personal life and work felt deeply entwined with this novel. To some, this may appear shameless rather than seamless. To which I say, belay off.)
Salter is a writers’ writer and his style recalls an earlier literary epoch, where every word seemed to pack more weight. His precise language and elliptical literary techniques coalesce into a brilliant, poetically clear, incisive narrative. His style appears to echo the sparse prose of American literature during most of the 20th century, with obvious comparisons to Hemingway, and maybe not so obvious comparisons to the “hippie” Richard Brautigan, both writers enamored with alcohol and succumbing to suicide. This sparse, hard edged style seems to have evaporated, perhaps coincidentally with the development of the word processor. At the risk of sounding like the typical old man who pines for a mythological past, words seemed to mean more then, when there were fewer of them spewed onto the page.
James Salter was an Air Force pilot who took up rock climbing, scaling some of the world’s most notorious rock faces, so he could write about it, and I’m glad he did. Solo Faces, published in 1979, cuts to the heart of my earlier self, a young man in his twenties with dreams of distant climbs, possible fame, and solo treks into the wilderness. There’s something heartbreaking and haunting about the main character, Vernon Rand, someone I might have aspired to be. If not for living and going to college in Missouri, I might have been on a steeply pitched roof in LA with dreams of the Alps. I might have traveled to France to scale ice and rock walls made famous by obscure heroes, an esoteric group, feeling the pull of solitude against the concept of a home in the lowlands, the glory of defying gravity and reality against the inevitable pull of mortality and old age, shunning love for obsession. If only my movements, like Rand’s, could glide me up the most daunting rock faces and achieve flight.
When I was a kid, my brothers and I strapped plywood to our arms and ran, flapping wood and hoping to fly, down a steep hill. I started rock climbing in Missouri in 1975, and wrote an article about it for Summit, a mountaineering magazine. I dreamed of scaling the big rock faces, but settled on long slogs over glaciers and snow fields, and published an article about mountaineering in Colombia. My personal life resembled Rand’s, flitting from one heart wrenching relationship to another, while dreaming of the purity of solitude. Often I’d pack into the woods alone, and return as Rand does to the peculiar, disconnected feeling of sitting in a bar full of strangers. It was a strange, other-worldly feeling I thought few understood, and which Salter depicts beautifully.
Women probably won’t like Solo Faces. It’s a book for men of literary and outdoor sensibilities, and it has an antiquated view of women. To be fair, Salter wrote and lived in an era when women were given almost no opportunity to do “manly” things like solo wilderness travel. The writing leans a little toward the misogyny that marked my youth in the 1970’s. Salter’s women in Solo Faces are a manifestation of a time when they didn’t have much opportunity to climb, literally and figuratively. Without women able to understand and share Vernon Rand’s solitary pursuit, it’s no wonder he keeps climbing away from them. By 2017, many women have climbed rock faces with unparalleled flexibility and grace and many more have trekked into the wilderness, inspired by Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s stunning memoir about her 1995 solo hike of the Pacific Crest Trail.
Unlike Rand, while exploring mountain peaks, I kept returning to St. Louis and met one strong willed independent woman after another, one of them hiking across the continental divide with me in Wyoming. She was able to “hold on” as Rand implores near the end of Solo Faces. Even then, we are of course not immune from the sort of heartbreak I wrote about in “The Wells Creek Route,” my nonfiction about climbing and the death of our firstborn.
I’ve never achieved the dream of scaling daunting rock walls like Salter and his main character Vernon Rand, but still occasionally think that even now, at 64, I’m not too old for Devil’s Tower. I dream about the man I used to be, and possibly still could be. I feel the pull of Rand’s quest to live on the edge of death and to climb solo into some sort of mythical infinity.
However, trying to turn such dreams into reality in my twenties would have cost me a fantastic time with my strong-willed, 24-year old daughter on a four day hike, with a 14,421 foot peak along the way. It would have cost me the promise of other trips. Rand’s solitary obsession is brought to life in Solo Faces, but so is the yearning truth of James Salter’s careful words, striving merely to hold on.
Jeffrey Penn May, author of Roobala Take Me Home, Where the River Splits, Cynthia and the Blue Cat’s Last Meow, No Teacher Left Standing, Eight Billion Steps: My Impossible Quest for Cancer Comedy, Finding Your Fiction, and more.