Friday, July 26, 2013

Last Night, by James Salter

I found it difficult to feel much sympathy for many of the characters in James Salter’s stories in Last Night (Knopf, 2005).  They seemed steeped in privilege, wealth, affluence, narcissistic self-absorption.  I’m not bothered by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wealthy coterie of characters, maybe because most of them come from humble origins (Gatsby, Dick Diver) or because Fitzgerald himself holds them at an ironic distance.  There’s not much sense in Salter’s collection of the history or background of his characters.  Some of these stories are maudlin: three women gather to discuss sex and romance past and present.  One of them listens but has nothing to contribute to the conversation.  She feels she has lived an unfulfilled life, a feeling encouraged by the stage four cancer diagnosis she had received earlier in the day.  She leaves the gathering and takes a taxi home, weeping in the backseat.  In another story, a husband assists his wife in committing suicide, then goes downstairs to have sex with his paramour.  The next morning his wife wakes up and wants to know why she didn’t die.  In still another story, a man’s wife asks him to stop having sex with his best friend—a relationship he hasn’t acknowledged to his wife for the ten years of their marriage.  Salter writes very well.  He knows and understands his characters.  But he doesn’t always succeed in making their problems interesting or representative of a wider experience.  Some of these stories seemed slight to me, or unbalanced, or unfinished.  The collection as a whole centered on people disappointed in their lives, guilty over their betrayals of others, bitter over how they have been betrayed.  There is adultery and sex or the promise of it throughout the volume, but mostly the promise leads to misery.  There are no fulfilled lives in these stories, and maybe that is Salter’s point.

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