A review of Last Night by James Salter

James Salter is an extraordinary writer and I envy those who are coming to him for the first time. His stories could be said to “explore character”, but that would be too pat and too simple; rather, they reveal soul. Mind you, these are souls that possess recondite carnal knowledge and have often undergone an excoriating experience of the world.

Reviewed by Paul Kane

Last Night
by James Salter
Knopf, Hardcover: 144 pages
April 19, 2005, ISBN: 1400043123

James Salter is a writer who has always explored extreme, intimate emotion. In Last Night, a stunning collection of ten short stories, he does so once more, bearing witness to the cost of love and the plight of the dying.

The greatest cost, of course, is borne by those who choose not to love. In “Palm Court” – a story that recalls the classic Henry James tale, “The Beast in the Jungle” – a man is given a second chance; the love of his life returns. All seems well when he speaks with her on the telephone: “She had not changed. He could tell it from her voice, speaking, as always, to him alone.” But somehow it is not the same. The enchantment is gone and his life is scorched by the knowledge that this love has gone forever. “Such Fun” continues the theme of regret. Three young women sit in an apartment and talk about men, sex and life. One, although still young, looks back:

She hadn’t had a love affair in college – she was the only one she knew who hadn’t. Now she was sorry, she wished she’d had. And gone to the room with only a window and a bed.

Recently diagnosed with cancer, she looks at her two friends, who are both in rude health. Her own life will end soon. Salter makes us aware of how alone she is, a virtual ghost existing already on a different plane.

The title story, “Last Night”, is also about the dying. A husband assists his wife in her suicide. The question is, does he agree out of love or is this an act of betrayal? The ambivalence is sustained till the end.

“Eyes of the Stars” is perhaps the most impressive offering in the book, and it is certainly my favourite story. A woman, now childless and alone, looks back to the summer of her youth and an affair that led to an abortion. Here is the closing epiphany:

She was remembering how it had started. She remembered the beer bottles rolling around in the back of the car when she was fifteen and he was making love to her every morning and she did not know if she was beginning life or throwing it away, but she loved him and would never forget.

Other stories can be said to explore the cost of choosing to love. In “Arlington”, a story of army life that recalls Salter’s novel Cassada, a man is duped and used by the woman he loves. For love is fraught with peril and leaves us vulnerable to attack. “Platinum” yields another truth, garnered when our love is not reciprocated: how small a part we are of other people’s lives!

Ambivalence is present throughout, but especially pronounced in two stories.
“Bangkok” gives us a man who is tempted by an old love (“He felt a phantom skip of the heart, however slight.”) and must wrestle with a desire to experience the world, a kind of venal cosmopolitanism, and love for one person only. What is the best, the most positive choice? While “Comet” shows us an adulteress who nonetheless despises the man she loves. She is haunted by the child and woman he has betrayed.

James Salter is an extraordinary writer and I envy those who are coming to him for the first time. His stories could be said to “explore character”, but that would be too pat and too simple; rather, they reveal soul. Mind you, these are souls that possess recondite carnal knowledge and have often undergone an excoriating experience of the world. The prose style is pared down and pure, and even the sentences are full of extraordinary perceptions and insights. (A final modest example: “A photograph was sacrosanct, you were excluded from it, always.”) Last Night represents a perfect blend of sensibility and style; these stories will touch your life and leave an indelible mark.

About the author: Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and can be contacted at pkane853@yahoo.co.uk

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