There is to mountain climbing a great purity. With the aid of a few hand tools, a man or woman hopes to reach the top of a mountain. What could be simpler? And yet, because of the omnipresent possibility of death -- from a false step, frayed rope or loose piton -- the sport has become a test of character. As Vernon Rand, the alpinist hero of "Solo Faces," explains, "Nothing actually protects you. It comes from within."
The theme of spiritual integrity determining the value of any action, no matter how heroic, recurs throughout the fiction of James Salter. The first of his five novels, "The Hunters" (1956), a delved into the "rarefied, ascetic world" of a fighter pilot in Korea who finds in battle a "tight purity"; his most celebrated, near legendary, novel, "A Sport and a Pastime" (1967), juxtaposed an achingly erotic and all-consuming love affair -- described by a peculiarly omniscient first-person narrator -- with the bland bourgeois life "we all agree is so greatly to be desired." "Solo Faces," adding another variation to his theme, contrasts a devotion to mountain climbing with the earthbound tugs of love and ordinary life.
Both the shape and geography of this novel about two rival climbers reflect a series of ascents and descents. Rand moves from obscurity to fame to obscurity. He is first seen working on the roof of a church in the California heat; he is last glimpsed in the darkness of a small room near an automobile junkyard in Florida. In between these locales of the spiritual and grossly material lie his central adventures in France. Chamonix is a world of clear air, snow-covered rock and an almost Franciscan simplicity -- it is here that Rand climbs, striving to transcend himself, to become worthy of legend. Out of season, he is attracted to a French woman named Catherin, who tries to make him forget the mountains by taking him to Paris. Rand's perception of the capital resembles that so often found in 19th-century fiction: Paris is a place of softness and luxury, of temporary notoriety and petty spite, of perfumed apartments and elegant cocottes.
The theme of pure and impure action, what one might call the Zen of mountain climbing, pervades "Solo Faces." To achieve spiritual release, the sense of unity of self and nature that he finds in climbing, Rand must sacrifice the society of men and women, even the pregnant Catherin, whom he loves. Such renunciation notwithstanding, Rand's heroic sanctity does allow the compensating possibility of fame -- to become, without willing it, a figure spoken about and remembered among climbers. In contrast to this high-mindedness, Jack Cabbot -- who is Rand's friend, rival and chief spur to greatness -- hopes to impose himself on history through meticulous PR work: Cabot makes sure a journalist is waiting when the two men return from climbing the Dru and he even contracts with the Bbc to film another dangerous ascent.
Rand naturally scorns all this until he is unexpectedly made famous after a daring rescue of two stranded Italian climbers. This sudden notoriety -- his face appears on television and in magazines -- sends him back to Paris, where he gradually grows sleek and fat, enjoying good food and sophisticated women.
Such media hype proves evanescent, though leaving its mark: Rand discovers he has lost the inner strength to climb alone. To complete his moral downfall, he also learns that Cabot has been paralyzed after a real fall in the Tetons. Rand returns to California, hoping to restore both Cabot and himself in an effort that echoes an earlier dramiatic moment when Rand willed his injured rival across a dangerous rock face.
Although the action of "Solo Faces" is highly charged symbolically, the novel moves rapidly and delivers scenes of genuine excitement. Expecially remarkable is Salter's attentiveness to detail. "Solo Faces" is composed as deliberately as a mountain is climbed. As in his earlier works, Salter's tone reflects a lyric gravity in sentences as crisp as the snow in Chamonix. Out of precisely rendered surfaces -- there is no psychologizing -- Salter vividly suggests the intensity of Rand's quest for an artistic perfection.
There are, however, eddies of recurrent imagery that unobtrusively add texture to the novel. Images of drowning, water and the sea counterpoint the descriptions of climbing. Few details are used only once. When Cabot and his wife, Carol, arrive in Chamonix, they find Rand wearing what look to be "the clothes of two or three vanished companions" and resembling "some kind of holy man." Later in Paris when trying to account for Rand's sexual attractiveness, a woman says that "it's mainly an ability to look good in old clothes." (Even the outward trappings of the spiritual may be corrupted.) On his first climb in France, Rand tells a fellow climber, "Never trust a piton you don't put in yourself." But on his last climb Rand ties off on a piton already in the face.
"Solo Faces," despite an occasional portentousness, is a beautifully composed book that will remind readers of Camus and Saint-Exupery. It exemplifies the purity it describes.