Last Night by James Salter: “Give”
A story that gave me little joy and left behind it only impertinent questions: – When was this story written relative to the others in the book? Just as composers will often re-use musical phrases and directors can often be found re-using particular motifs, “Give” is a story that seems to draw on images and themes that are also present in the other stories. Is this story’s lusty poet a dry run for that of “My Lord You” or did that image stick so firmly in Salter’s mind that he could not help but return to it? – Does Salter work better at certain lengths than others? The more space he affords himself, the more elegantly he describes to space around his moods and characters. “Give” is nearly the shortest story in the collection and while it does manage to gain some traction, the emotions and images it shuffles around are more simplistic than they are in other stories. Much like “Such Fun”, “Give” is a story with a distracting twist in the tale. I say “distracting” as the drama arising from the male narrator’s affair with another man is most definitely not the point of the story. This is not a story about lost love or a marriage strained by infidelity, it is a story about a world woven from lies and enforced with all the passive-aggression that the middle-classes can muster.
On my first read through, “Give” irritated me so much that I actually wrote quite a petulant essay about it before stepping away from the keyboard and returning a few days later. What irritated me was the head-space of the story’s narrator, a horrendous upper middle-class American who revels in his ‘friendship’ with an ‘eccentric’ young poet. The story opens with Salter giving us the literary equivalent of both barrels straight in the face; It is the morning of the narrator’s wife’s birthday and the couple come downstairs to find their houseguest Des pretending to fence with their young son Billy:
Des in a bathrobe with his pale hair awry and a bamboo stick in his hand. Billy, who was six then, was hopping around in front of him. I could hear his shrieks of joy. Anna came up beside me. — What are they doing now? — I can’t tell. Billy is waving something over his head. — I think it’s a flyswatter, she said, disbelieving. She was just thirty-one, the age when women are past foolishness though not unfeeling. — Look at him, she said. Don’t you just love him?
The first barrel is the way that the narrator fawns over Des’ pale hair only to describe his wife in profoundly misogynistic terms. Are women past foolishness but not unfeeling by the age of 31? In that case, at what age does a woman become unfeeling and up to what age are they all fools? The second barrel is the pointed ambiguity of that last line of dialogue. Anna is clearly encouraging her husband to look at their son but the narrator (along with most readers) might assume that she is talking about Des. From there, the story moves on to an extended hymn of praise to the greatness of Des:
He was a poet, of course. He even looked like a poet, intelligent, lank. He’d won the Yale prize when he was twenty-five and went on from there. When you pictured him, it was wearing a gray herringbone jacket, khaki pants, and for some reason sandals. Doesn’t fit together, but a lot of things about him were like that.
That opening actually made me laugh out loud. I get the impression that professional poets are the literary world’s equivalent of the footballer with the Nike contract or the high-level Paladin with the +5 Holy Avenger. If you happen to reside within the confines of that particular intellectual silo then you probably see professional poets as rare and precious talents who have somehow managed to fly in the face of an unappreciative era and carved out a living for themselves through the sheer power of their excellence. Having never been anywhere near a humanities department, I tend to see poets as decadent beneficiaries of a literary culture hell-bent upon making itself irrelevant. The world calls for clarity and the poet deliver nothing but obfuscation. I laughed at that opening because I think we are supposed to pity the narrator’s sense of vicarious achievement. We’re no more impressed by his Yale prize than we are convinced that he’s some kind of intellectual renegade because he chooses to wear sandals. Egg the pudding even further and the narrator would be talking about Des being ‘mental’ because he keeps a traffic cone on his coffee table. Imagine that… a traffic cone on his coffee table! What a delightfully singular human being… don’t you just love him?
The narrator’s infatuation is particularly evident when he doesn’t so much recall his first encounter with Des as provide an itemised list of the topics they covered during their first conversation:
Arletty, Nestor Almendros, Jacques Brel, The Lawrenceville Stories, the cordon sanitaire, everything including his real interest, jazz.
I also laughed at the fact that jazz was ‘his real interest’… Of course it fucking was. Things come to a head when Anna not only reveals her knowledge of the fact that Des and the narrator are having an affair, but also demands that it come to an immediate end. Having been so effusive and un-self-conscious in his descriptions of Des, the narrator is reduced to flat denials. Des dutifully moves out of the house and gets on with his life, leaving the narrator to pine in such a ludicrously melodramatic and petulant fashion that you really cannot help but smile:
I felt the injustice for a long time. He’d brought only pleasure to us, and if to me particularly, that didn’t diminish it. I had some photographs that I kept in a certain place, and of course I had the poems. I followed him from afar, the way a woman does a man she was never able to marry. The glittering blue water slid past as he made his way between the islands. There was Ios, white in the haze, where the dust of Homer lay, they said.
My reaction to the narrator’s plight is not just a result of his pretention and duplicity but the role these characteristics played in the establishment of a relationship dynamic that seems more horrendous the more I think about it. The meat of the piece appears about halfway through the story when the narrator decides to explain the questionable terms under which his marriage seems to operate:
When you found someone who was tremendously appealing but not quite perfect, you might believe you could change them after a marriage, not everything, just a few things, but in truth the most you could expect was to change perhaps one thing and even that would eventually go back to what it had been. The small things that could be overlooked at first but in time became annoying, we had a way of handling, of getting the pebble out of the shoe, so to speak. It was called a give, and it was agreed that it would last. The phrase that was over-used, an eating habit, even a piece of favourite clothing, a give was a request to abandon it. You couldn’t ask for something, only to stop something. The wide skirt of the bathroom sink was always wiped dry because of a give. Anna’s little finger no longer extended when she drank from a cup. There might be more than one thing you would like to ask, and there was sometimes difficulty in choosing, but there was the satisfaction of knowing that once a year, without causing resentment, you would be able to ask your husband or wife to stop this one thing.
I’ve quoted this section at some length because I wanted you to share in its cyclopean horror. Oh my giddy aunt… where do I even start? The first paragraph presents the story’s marriage as two people settling and not just settling but settling into a loveless union that neither side believes can ever be improved. Chained in matrimony as they both grow increasingly bitter and resentful of the other party’s failings, the couple institute a system whereby a particularly irritating trait can be altered on the basis of a once-yearly request. The fascinating thing about this system of gives is that the narrator’s belief that people can never change means that gives can only ever involve entirely trivial matters. Now… I don’t know about the state of your long-term relationship or marriage but when my wife does something peculiar, I tend to view it as cute because I love my wife. You don’t have to be much of a Freudian to work out that people who become enraged by their partner’s little idiosyncrasies are really just using those idiosyncrasies as an excuse to vent any and all negative feelings they might have about their partner. Extending a finger whilst drinking from a cup will never end a healthy relationship but teetering on the brink of temper tantrums triggered by harmless idiosyncrasies almost certainly will. In effect, what the narrator is describing is a game of emotional whack-a-mole: The couple can never treat the sickness afflicting their marriage because they can never hope to change anything. All they can ever do is treat the symptoms by eradicating the latest expression of deep-seated loathing. Whack the mole, whack the mole, enjoy the vicarious thrill you get from watching your partner painstakingly train themselves not to slurp their tea. When the narrator’s wife uses her annual gift to demand the narrator terminate his affair, she is trying to save her marriage by addressing something a bit more substantial than the noise he makes when eating a hard-boiled egg. Angry both because his wife has called him on his bullshit and because she has broken the social contract and used the give system to address a serious problem, the narrator sulks like Achilles in his tent, views himself as entirely the wronged party and yet never thinks to consider that he might want to put an end to his ugly sham of a marriage. Don’t you just love him? I suspect this story would have been a lot more interesting had Salter made it a bit longer. Salter never really addresses the question of whether the narrator’s wife shares his opinions on marriage or whether this state of loveless passive-aggression is something that he has unilaterally imposed upon the both of them. I suspect that a few more skirmishes with the wife might have fleshed out her character as well as given us a clearer picture of the narrator’s character and the relationship dynamic that united them.
Weirdly enough, this story reminded me of season four of the US TV series Dexter. Dexter was an inordinately silly and increasingly rickety series dealing with a serial killer’s attempts to manage his compulsion to kill by presenting a virtuous front to the world and channelling his murderous desires into a form of vigilantism that became increasingly hard to justify even in the world of the show. In my opinion, season four was the highpoint for Dexter as it dealt with Dexter’s desire to have a perfect family life despite being unable to experience all of the feelings of love, devotion and empathy that make family life possible. The Big Bad of season 4 was John Lithgow’s Trinity Killer who had managed to remain completely undetected for decades in part because he presented himself as a Jimmy Saville-style charity worker with a loyal family and model home life. However, towards the end of the series it becomes clear that Trinity only managed to maintain the illusion of a perfect family life by intimidating and abusing his family. While this idea wound up being squandered by a bungled denouement, there’s a wonderful moment where the series raises the possibility that Dexter’s loving wife and caring children might be absolutely terrified of him.
“Give” reminded me a bit of that season of Dexter as it raises (and ultimately bungles) the possibility that someone with a very clear understanding of how their relationship works might be completely and utterly wrong. My experience of failed long term relationships is that, even if you’re not constantly arguing or disagreeing with each other, you generally have a good idea of a) whether or not the other person is happy and b) whether or not your actions are contributing to that unhappiness. The character in “Give” assumes that his marriage is functional but is legitimately stunned when his wife dares to ask him to stop fucking other guys, suggesting that he had absolutely no idea that his actions were making her seriously unhappy. I suspect I may be reading a bit too much into what is a very short story but I am intrigued by the idea of someone so completely misunderstanding their own relationship and I think that’s what Salter is prowling around.