Solo Faces

Last year wasn’t a terrific year of reading for me. Like everything else, some years are better than others. Nevertheless, James Wood, the book critic for the New Yorker said he had a good one, starting off with the works of Elena Ferrante, an author I had read and liked, but that was several years ago. He mentioned Jamie Quatro’s book of short stories, unfamiliar to me.

And then Wood waxes eloquently about Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers. His review in the magazine led me to buy the book. I’ve tried reading it three times now, getting a little further but never staying with it very long. Yes, she writes a brilliant sentence once in a while, but that by itself doesn’t make a great novel. Besides the story is about people who really don’t speak my language. However, I will not give up so easily

I made a list of the 30 or so books I managed to finish last year and really only one stood out, James Salter’s Solo Faces. Although it was written in 1979, I read it for the first time last year, 34 years after it was published.

A great mountain is serious. It demands everything of a climber, absolutely all. It must be difficult and also beautiful, it must lie in the memory like the image of an unforgettable year. It must be unsoiled…The mountain magnifies. The smallest event is irreversible…

His name is Vernon Rand, he’s a mountain climber, obsessed by it, the only thing that matters in his life. After a series of aimless jobs in California, he leaves one day for Chamonix in the French Alps, where he begins climbing the perilous mountains there.

Salter’s description of his climbs are exciting, tense, you can’t put the book down. Rand’s climbs are dangerous, risky, each one more dangerous and riskier than the one before. Sometimes he climbs alone, sometimes with friend, sometimes with anyone who will go up with him.

The Dru, Pointe Lachene, the North Face of the Triolet, the names of the steep, icy, mountains he climbed. There was an accident on the Dru, the West Face, far up, the climbers were still alive. No one could reach them, the helicopters were useless, one rescuer was killed. Rand takes a crack at it. He reaches them, brings them down safely.

“When he woke he was famous. His face poured off the presses of France. It was repeated on every kiosk, in the pages of magazines, his interview read on the buses by working girls on their way home. Suddenly, in to small rooms and houses the ordinary streets, he brought a glimpse of something unspoiled. For two hundred years France had held the idea of the noble savage, simple, true. Unexpectedly he had appeared. His image cleansed the air like rain. He was the envoy of a breed one had forgotten, generous, unafraid, with a saintly smile and the vascular system of a marathon runner.”

He travels around, meets and discards one woman after another, thinks they are all the same anyway. Bored, restless, he decides to climb the Walker—alone. It did not take him long before he realizes he wasn’t going to be able to do it. “The will was draining from him. He had the resignation of one condemned. He knew the outcome, he no longer cared, he merely wanted it to end.”

He says that once you’ve lost your courage, nothing else matters. He knows his days of mountain climbing are over, his world had come apart. “It’s finished. Once it’s over, it’s over.”