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Last Night by James Salter: “Eyes of the Stars”

May 29, 2015

It is hard not to read this story as an invitation to compare-and-contrast its female characters. Like “Comet”, “Eyes of the Stars” opens with a vivisection of its primary protagonist:

She was short with short legs and her body had lost its shape. It began at her neck and continued down, and her arms were like a cook’s. In her sixties Teddy had looked the same for a decade and would probably go on looking the same, where was not that much to change. She had pouches under her eyes and a chin, slightly receding when she was a girl, that was lost now in several others, but she was dressed neatly and people liked her.

There’s a surprising amount of cruelty and laziness about this description. Teddy’s obesity is characterised as a loss of shape and begins at her neck in a way that invites us to think of her pretty face, which is always the first thing people try to compliment in fat women. Drenched in vinegar, such compliments invariably take the form “…but you have such a pretty face!” as though obesity were a body’s act of betrayal against an innocent and undeserving face. Equally uncomfortable is Salter’s decision to append the description with the rejoinder that “she was dressed neatly and people liked her” so as to assure us that Teddy is not one of those slovenly fat people who are deserving of our unreasoning hatred. The mention of the cook’s arms also gives this passage an edge of snobbery as though Teddy’s weight made her look like a member of the working class.

Uncharitably viewed, this is Salter weaving a character from raw social prejudice. Charitably viewed, this is a deliberate act of cruelty designed to make us think of Teddy as someone who has long been the victim of other people’s unkindness. When I refer to Teddy as the story’s primary protagonist, what I mean is that she is the character with whom we are meant to sympathise. She is the ‘goodie’ for want of a better word.

 

 

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Long before she was fat, Teddy was the under-age lover of a writer with ties to Hollywood:

She was not, even in those days, exactly beautiful, but there was a body that spoke, at the time, of much that youth could offer. He took her to get her first diaphragm and she was his mistress for three years until he left town and returned to literature and in the end a large house in New Jersey.

Setting aside the wonderfully creepy image of a grown man taking his 15 year-old lover to the doctor’s in order to get her some birth control, I love how Salter distances Teddy from the things that attracted the author: She did not ‘own’ or ‘have’ a body, the body was simply there and while it may not have been beautiful, it spoke of youth until Teddy’s adulthood silenced that voice and the author lost interest and wandered off. Salter returns us to this youthful Teddy later in the story to talk of how the author refused to take him with her to parties and how she hid her body in a black one-piece swimming costume to hide traces of the abortion that would happen later that year. Each of these details establishes Teddy as someone who was mistreated and used only to come out stronger but also more eager to please.

By the time the plot kicks in, Teddy has graduated to production and unexpectedly finds herself at the helm of a hit TV show involving a handsome and a romantic anti-hero who still fights the good fight despite the hardships that life has placed in his way. The show’s success inspires the suits upstairs to rope Teddy into helping to rehabilitate a one-time Hollywood starlet who has since fallen out of favour:

Then Deborah Legley, who had not been in a movie for some years but whose name was still alive – the slender arrogance when she was younger, the marriage to an immortal – came from the east for a guest appearance. She was being paid a lot of money, too much, Teddy felt, and from the beginning she was difficult.

Deborah swoops onto the set and pulls one power move after another: Making everyone wait, ignoring the director, refusing to talk to the crew and generally acting as though Teddy’s show is beneath her. Ever eager to be liked, Teddy invites Deborah to dinner in the hope of brokering a peace and invites the show’s lead, a wonderfully vacuous man named Keck (which is more of a velar stop than a name)

If Salter presents Teddy and Deborah as two opposing teams then Keck is undeniably the ball. A handsome man who looks younger than he actually is, Keck was discovered whilst accompanying someone else to an open casting call. A one-time swimming coach with no history in show business, Salter stresses Keck’s ordinariness and lack of guile in order to establish him as the moral centre of the story. Salter wants Keck to choose between Teddy and Deborah but leaves it up to us to determine why he makes the decision he does.

Keck drives over to Deborah’s hotel in order to pick her up and go to dinner with Teddy and the power games begin almost immediately. Standing outside her room, Keck is forced to repeatedly knock before Deborah decides to acknowledge his presence:

 – Who is it?

– It’s Booth.

– Who?

– Booth, he said loudly.

– Just a minute.

An equally long time passed. The dog had stopped barking. There was silence. He knocked again. At last, like the sweeping aside of a great curtain, the door opened.

– Come on in, she said. I’m sorry, were you waiting?

I love that final question: Either Deborah is just being a jerk and making Keck wait or she heard he was there and wandered off to do something else (possibly cocaine) before finally remembering to answer the door. Either way, it’s a lovely way of establishing the way that Deborah sees and treats other people.

As soon as the two actors sit down, Deborah begins complaining about the stupidity of the man Teddy sent to pick up Deborah at the airport and trying to enlist Keck in some unspecified plot to get revenge or take control of the TV show. Salter’s decision to leave Deborah’s plot as vapourware is wonderful as it really underlines the sense in which Deborah’s motivations are simply too petty and vindictive to yield a coherent plan of action. It is not that Teddy is doing a bad job of running her show, it is that she has fallen into Deborah’s crosshairs and now something must be done!

Seemingly sympathetic, Keck goes along with Deborah’s grandstanding and lies to Teddy about Deborah’s dog being sick so that the pair can have dinner together in private. The dinner turns out to be something of a disaster as Deborah drags Keck from one restaurant to another in search of a place where she will be recognised. As the evening wears on, Deborah’s attempts to seduce the married Keck become ever-more obvious as does her contempt for other people. Returning to Deborah’s suite, Keck is gripped with panic as he plays out how he suspects Deborah will go about seducing him. Without Deborah saying a word, he calls Teddy and sides with her:

He felt uneasy. What’s wrong, are you afraid of something? She was going to say. No, why? You’re acting afraid.

There was a knot in his stomach. What is it, your wife? She was going to ask. Oh, yes, I forgot, the wife. There’s always the wife.

Deborah had gone to the ladies room.

– Hello, Teddy? Keck said. He was talking on his cell phone. I just thought I’d call you.

– Where are you? What happened? Is the dog all right?

– Yeah, the dog’s OK. We’re at a restaurant.

– Well, it’s a little late…

– Don’t even budge. I’m taking care of it. I’ll handle it.

– Is she behaving?

– This woman? Let me tell you something: it’s even worse if she likes you.

– What do you mean?

– I can’t talk anymore, I see her coming back. You’re lucky you’re not here.

There are a dozen perfectly valid reasons for Keck not befriending Deborah: Aside from her rudeness and the fact that her vision of people seems to be entirely determined by their usefulness, there is also the fact that Deborah is a bit-player on a show that provides Keck with an income. Why would he side with Deborah against Teddy? The fascinating thing about this story is the way that Salter pushes past common sense and asks us to consider the inner working of the three characters.

Teddy is not just a sympathetic character, she is presented as a sort of paragon who has made it in show business despite having had to grow accustomed to the unkindness of others. Deborah, for all of her theatrical unpleasantness is a mirror image of Teddy as she too was targeted and used by an older man with Hollywood connections but while Teddy was used up and cast aside, Deborah seemed more than ready to play the game and went into the relationship with eyes wide open:

Keck could see it, eighteen and more or less innocent, everything still ahead of her. If she took off her clothes you would never forget it.

The similarities between the backstories of the two female characters are too pronounced to be accidental so Salter clearly means us to factor both women’s initial contact with show business into the impressions we form of the characters.

The big difference between Deborah and Teddy is that while Teddy was under-age when she got involved with an older man, Deborah was already an adult and no longer completely naïve. Salter underlines this point by stressing young Deborah’s ownership of her body and sexuality. More or less innocent; when she takes off her clothes you never forget it.

One of the things you realise when reading Salter is that, as rewarding as critical sleuthing can be, many of his stories are built around gaps that are simply too large to fill by the mere act of reading. Salter invites us to compare and contrast the stories of these two Hollywood women in order to determine why they turned out so differently. James Salter was born in 1925 and his age invites us to fill in the blanks with all kinds of outdated and problematic ideas: Was the vicious old Deborah already present in the altogether too worldly young Deborah? Did Teddy escape psychological scarring because she was too young and naïve to understand what was happening to her? I would certainly not rule out either of these possibilities but while Salter’s writing undeniably reflects his age and experiences, he is not lacking in self-awareness.

In many ways, the most interesting character in the story is that of the everyman actor Keck. Salter establishes Keck as the story’s conscience and takes us quite a long way down the road towards his jumping into bed with Deborah but he recoils at the last minute and winds up siding with his boss. My interpretation of Keck is that he is deeply attracted to Deborah and profoundly flattered by the interest of an older and more glamorous woman. What causes him to recoil is both the idea of becoming another strategic notch on Deborah’s bedpost and penetrating too far into a world where love is deconstructed and crudely rebuilt in the form of turned down beds and chilled champagne. Keck is a man who is still finding his feet in Hollywood and he feels the allure of Deborah’s world but he still feels the tug of the bourgeois normality from which he came. He does not recoil from Deborah because she is a vindictive older woman who uses sex to get what she wants, he recoils from her because he does not want to become one of those men who feature in the anecdotes of Hollywood women. Keck’s devotion to bourgeois normality is also reflected in the way that Salter establishes Teddy as a paragon and then keeps returning to her in fragments of domestic normality.

Perhaps the reason why Teddy remains the more sympathetic character is that she has retained some awareness of the ugly squalor that lurks behind Hollywood glamour. Looking back on her life, Deborah remembers turned down beds, chilled champagne and weird anecdotes about directors whereas Teddy understand that all her riches and status began in an ugliness that was both human and pregnant with potential:

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.

 

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