Last Night by James Salter

Last year I wrote about A Sport and a Pastime, a critically acclaimed novel by the American writer James Salter, a book I liked in parts but didn’t particularly enjoy as a whole. This year I thought I’d try some of Salter’s short fiction – more specifically, Last Night (2006) a set of ten stories, many of which first appeared in various literary journals and magazines in the years leading up to the publication of this collection. Once again, this turned out to be a bit of a mixed experience for me due to the variable quality of the material. There is one standout story here, some very good ones, and a few that seem either less compelling or less memorable. Nevertheless, there is something intriguing about this author’s work, particularly his ability to capture particular moods or scenarios (e.g. the emotional charge between two lovers, the intensity of some of those key moments in life).

The opening story, Comet, features two typical Salter protagonists: a capable, elegant middle-class American man, Philip Ardet, and his beautiful wife, Adele.

She was still young enough to be good-looking, the final blaze of it, though she was too old for children, at least if she had anything to say about it. Summer was coming. Out of the afternoon haze she would appear, in her black bathing suit, limbs all tan, the brilliant sun behind her. She was the strong figure walking up the smooth sand from the sea, her legs, her wet swimmer’s hair, the grace of her, all careless and unhurried. (p. 4)

At first, all seems well in the Ardets’ relationship, their lives appear comfortable and settled; but as the story unfolds a somewhat different picture emerges. A conversation at a dinner party opens up old wounds for Philip and Adele as another woman reveals that her husband has been having a secret affair for the last seven years. As a consequence, we gain an insight into the bitterness that is eating away at Adele, an emotion that threatens the stability of her marriage to Philip.

In My Lord You, one of my favourite pieces in the collection, a drunken poet arrives late to a dinner party where he proceeds to harass, both verbally and sexually, another of the guests – a married woman named Ardis – spouting Oscar Wilde and Ezra Pound in the process. (For his part, Ardis’ husband does nothing to intervene in the incident, a significant factor as it highlights his impotence when faced with the possibility of confrontation.)

In spite of being disturbed by this annoying poet, Ardis remains somewhat fascinated by him, so she goes in search of his poetry and then his house to see how he lives. Ultimately, Ardis is drawn into the poet’s life in a rather unexpected way, especially when his dog follows her home and proceeds to set up watch outside. This is a strange story, unsettling and compelling in relatively equal measure.

Such Fun features three young women at the end of a girls’ night out. Their conversations focus on the men they have been seeing, their recent break-ups, their past and current loves – in other words, the trials of finding the ‘right’ partner in life. But unbeknownst to the other two women there, Jane, the quietest member of the group, is carrying a painful burden, one she only reveals to an unknown taxi driver as he drives her home, the tears streaming down her face.

Several of the most successful stories in this collection feature unexpected twists or revelations towards the end, pieces like Give in which the all-too-familiar ‘comfortable man-having-an-affair-with-another-woman’ scenario is given a different spin. Others are more poignant, stories such as Palm Court, in which a man receives a phone call from a woman from his past, a development that triggers memories of their time together and the opportunities he failed to grasp.

Desire, betrayal, frustration – these are the emotions at the heart of many of these stories. In Platinum, another of my favourites in the collection, a seemingly happily married man is having an affair with a seductive young woman, only to be given away by a pair of his wife’s earrings when his lover insists on borrowing them. While this might sound like another rather clichéd scenario, Salter gives the story a new twist, the sort of development you don’t necessarily anticipate even though the clues are there in the narrative almost right from the very start.

The book ends on a startling note with the titular piece, Last Night, undoubtedly the best story in this collection. Walter’s wife, Marit, is terminally ill with cancer. Unable to tolerate the pain any longer, Marit has asked Walter to hasten her death, a wish we assume he has agreed to carry out even though we are not privy to any of their earlier discussions on this point.

It was in the uterus and had travelled from there to the lungs. In the end, she had accepted it. Above the square neckline of her dress the skin, pallid, seemed to emanate a darkness. She no longer resembled herself. What she had been was gone: it had been taken from her. The change was fearful, especially in her face. She had a face now that was for the afterlife and those she would meet there. It was hard for Walter to remember how she had once been. She was almost a different woman from the one to whom he had made a solemn promise to help when the time came. (p. 123)

It is Marit and Walter’s last night together. Their final supper has ended, the lethal injection lies ready and waiting in the fridge. We think we know how this story will unfold, how both of these individuals deserve our sympathies as they confront Marit’s mortality; but once again, Salter wrongfoots us in the most surprising way, a move that causes us to question our earlier assumptions about values, morals, intentions and motives. This is a highly memorable story, one that is likely to stay with you for quite some time.

In spite of the variability of the stories in this collection (I’ve skipped the lesser ones), the quality of Salter’s writing is never in doubt. As with much of this author’s work, there is a discernible undercurrent of sensuality running through several of these pieces, a mood that is matched by the elegant and graceful nature of the prose – you can probably see it in my first quote, the one on Adele. I’ll finish with a final passage, just because it captures something of Salter’s style, the way he can sketch a lasting image in just a few well-judged sentences.

At six, he somehow made his way home. It was one of those evenings like the beginning of a marvellous performance in which everyone somehow had a role. Lights had come on in the windows, the sidewalk restaurants were filling, children were running home late from playing in the park, the promise of fulfilment was everywhere. In an elevator a pretty woman he did not recognise was carrying a large bunch of flowers somewhere upstairs. She avoided looking at him. (pp. 84-85)

Last Night is published by Picador; personal copy

40 thoughts on “Last Night by James Salter

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I love his prose. That first one is very reminiscent of some of the passages from Light Years, one of Salter’s best novels. When he’s on form he is spectacularly good.

      Reply
  1. Brian Joseph

    Great review Jacqui.

    The plots and characters that you describe sound so interesting. It is too bad that in other ways Salter sounds inconsistent. It seems as if his talent is marred in a way.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m not unhappy that I read this one, Brian. It’s just that some of the stories were less compelling than others. I wonder if that’s almost to be expected with any collection of short fiction, the fact that some pieces are bound to resonate more strongly than the rest?

      Reply
  2. Tredynas Days

    He’s one of my favourite authors. Oddly enough I just listened to a Backlisted podcast yesterday on his best novel, A Sport and a Pastime (think that’s how he spells it). It’s a while since I read the collection you review so admirably here, but I recall finding it less satisfactory than the full-length fiction, and uneven, as you say. Sad to think he’s no longer with us; I wrote about his last novel when it came out a couple of years ago – not his finest work, but still better than most other writers’ fare.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I’d say he’s probably on of my favourite writers too, even though I haven’t quite clicked with all of his work. I know that might sound a little odd, but I think it comes down to the quality of his prose – it’s just sublime. Funnily enough, A Sport and a Pastime is my least favourite of the five or six I’ve read so far. It feels dated to me now, almost as though it’s trapped in the late sixties/early seventies. I don’t know…it’s hard to explain, but as a novel I don’t think it has aged particularly well.

      Reply
  3. TJ @ MyBookStrings

    Too bad the total of this collection didn’t quite sum up. But I enjoyed the quotes you included, and I am very curious about that last story now. I’ll have to try to find it, just to find out what happens.

    Reply
  4. BookerTalk

    Was the final story published somewhere as a standalone piece – I’d be interested tor read this. Short story collections never excite me though so I will have to try his full length works if I want to appreciate his talent now that you’ve given me a taste for it

    Reply
  5. buriedinprint

    I’ve read a collection of his letters (without having read any of his fiction) and found it extremely enjoyable. He’s someone about whom I’m curious, but don’t have a burning desire to read, if you know what I mean. On the radar, but not in a soonish-way. I do like collections of short stories though!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I know what you mean by that. Barbara Comyns was in that category for me for a while – but then I read Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, which I loved, so I well may well try another by her at some point.

      Going back to Salter for a mo, I have his autobiography, Burning the Days, on the shelves. He lived an interesting life, so it’s bound to be a great read.

      Reply
      1. buriedinprint

        Here’s a snippet from the collection of letters: “We must consume whole worlds to write a single sentence and yet we never use up a part of what is available. I love the infinities, the endlessness involved….” which he wrote to Robert Phelps in December 1970. The bulk of the quotes that I jotted down were from Salter rather than Phelps: good stuff!

        Reply
  6. heavenali

    I love A good story collection. It’s a shame when really good stories are let down by inferior ones in the same collection. Overall though this does sound really good.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, although I wonder if a little variation in quality is to be expected. It’s almost inevitable that some pieces will resonate with us more strongly that others. That said, the Richard Yates collection I read towards the beginning of this year was truly excellent, not a dud amongst the stories there.

      Reply
  7. Emma

    Writing short stories is really an art in itself, different from writing a novel. I’m currently reading short stories too and they’re uneven too.
    I wasn’t keen on the Salter I read, I’ll try The Hunter before this collection.
    Thanks for the review, it’s helpful.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I agree. I know it’s tempting to think that they’re are easier to write than a novel, but I suspect it’s the other way around. There’s nowhere to hide with a short story, every word has to count.

      I would definitely recommend The Hunters ahead of this collection. It’s a great book, probably my favourite of the Salters I’ve read so far.

      Reply
  8. Max Cairnduff

    He can definitely write can’t he? I’m not much in the mood presently for well written tales of middle class American angst, simply because there sometimes seem to be so very many of them. To be honest, Salter tempts me more as a novelist than short story writer – the books of his I’ve read really benefited from having the space to develop their themes.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      He sure can. That’s a great observation on his novels vs the short fiction. On the whole, I found these stories much less compelling than the best of his longer fiction. To be frank, most of the characters in these stories are not that interesting, they’re rather cliched and of a certain type (the men especially). What works well in the best of these pieces is the situations he places them in – it’s the little twists and turns in dynamics that makes them interesting.

      Reply
    2. JacquiWine Post author

      I meant to add that there are a lot of cocktail evenings and dinner parties in these stories, which probably tells you everything you need to know about the characters – middle class American angst indeed.

      Reply
  9. bookbii

    Interesting review Jacqui, would you say that Salter is a patchy writer? Both of your experiences seem to suggest a mixed response. He’s a writer whose on my radar as a possible read, but in terms of priority I’m still not sure where to put him. Those passages are certainly powerful, but are they representative?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The first quote is very representative of his style. In fact, it’s strongly reminiscent of the prose in Light Years (one of his best novels). The last passage is pretty typical too. His writing is often described as shimmering or luminous – there is a fluidity to it, a sense of elegance which seems perfectly judged. I loved The Hunters and Light Years, both of which I read pre-blog – it’s just a pity that I couldn’t be quite as positive about the two I’ve tried since then!

      Reply
  10. 1streading

    Slater sounds like someone I should probably try, though I’m not convinced now is the time. I will read Last Night as I see there is a link above – I was reminded in your discussion of it of a rather harrowing play I saw with Bill Paterson in it, And No More Shall We Part.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Good idea to try the story. I’ll be interested to hear what you think of it. To be honest, it might not be your cup of tea. The Hunters, on the other hand, might be a better option for you – that’s just a hunch on my part!

      Reply
  11. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  12. Pingback: My Reading List for The Classics Club | JacquiWine's Journal

Leave a comment or reply - I'd love to hear your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s