Last Night by James Salter: “Palm Grove”
This is a story that left me somewhat unconvinced. What drew me to Salter in the first place, was the promise of unfamiliar psychological vistas: As a reader, I wanted to encounter something new. As a critic, I wanted stories that would ask more from me than the ability to recognise stock characters and the relationships that traditionally bind them together. This is a very well-crafted story but it also rests upon a dynamic that is both ancient and toxic, namely that of men viewing women as objects and psychological props rather than living, breathing people. Salter handles his charges with considerable sympathy but it is noticeable that Noreen never quite manages to come together as anything more than Arthur’s perceptions of her. I knew coming into Last Night that Salter was an older writer whose worldview was not likely to be particularly progressive but it is still disappointing to run into lazy thought patterns in the work of someone who is manifestly capable of real empathy and understanding. “Palm Court” is what theatre people would call a two-hander: Two characters drawn are together after a long time apart, their unexpected closeness compelling them to consider both why they parted and why they cannot remain together.
The primary character is a middle-aged man working for an off-Wall Street brokerage firm. Neither great with numbers nor skilled at spotting new investment opportunities, Arthur makes a living out of his ability to manage clients, to get on their good side and maintain their trust:
He liked to talk to people, he could talk and tell stories all day. And he was known to be honest. He had taken as models the old-timers, men long gone such as Henry Braver, Patsy Millinger’s father, who’d been a partner and had started before the war.
His charm is folksy. He litters his speech with oddball slang and creates an impression of intimacy by appearing to talk out of school. Like the old school comics who would look to both wings to check that the coast was clear before hitting you with a particularly fruity piece of innuendo. This is just between the two of us:
— Mark, how are you, tootsola? You ought to be here. The numbers came in from Micronics. They’re all crying. We were so smart not to get involved in that. Sweetheart, you want to know something? There are some very smart guys here who’ve taken a bath. He lowered his voice. Morris, for one.
Arthur reminds me of Edward G. Robinson in Double Indemnity. I can imagine him making call after call with a shirt pocket full of cigars, croupier’s arm-garters holding starched white cuffs up above forearms just a little bit too hairy and misshapen to be elegant. He’s charming and smart in a way that works better over the phone and he knows that Yiddish-isms like “tootsola” go down well with the mid-western dentists who trust him because they think that Jews are good with money. Arthur meets Noreen in a local bar and he’s slightly taken aback that someone as lovely as she would bother talking to someone as unattractive as him. True to character, he begins his seduction by engineering a sense of intimacy. He shares his world and his perspective on it, checking both wings before he does so:
To Clarke’s came advertising men, models, men like himself, and off-duty cops late at night. He showed Noreen how to recognise them, black shoes and white socks, Noreen loved it. She was a favourite there, with her looks and wonderful laugh. The waiters called her by her first name.
Noreen is drawn to Arthur’s charm but what keeps her coming back is the sense that he’s safe and manageable. That she doesn’t need to worry:
They went to his boss’s suite. The boss was away and they were drinking twelve-year-old scotch, and the next thing she knew she was lying facedown on the bed with her hands tied behind her. That was in a different world than Arthur’s. His was decent, forgiving, warm.
Arthur is drawn to Noreen in part because of her looks and easy charm but mostly because she reminds him that life can be better than it is:
Westhampton, her tanned legs and pale heels. The feeling she gave him of being younger, even, God help him, debonair. He was playful. On the beach he wore a coconut hat. He had fallen in love, deeply, and without knowing it. He hadn’t realised he had been living a shallow life. He only knew that he was happy, happier than he had ever been. This warmhearted girl with her legs, her fragrance, and perfect little ears that were tuned to him. And she took some kind of pleasure in him!
People start asking Arthur when he and Noreen are going to get married and Arthur is oddly evasive. It’s not that he doesn’t want to, it’s just that he can’t quite bring himself to ask the question. Why Arthur fails to propose to Noreen is very much the meat of this story. Time passes and Noreen unexpectedly turns up on Arthur’s doorstep. Unexpected because she didn’t call first and because she had never been there before. Salter positions the story as taking place in the early 1980s and so the fact that Noreen and Arthur never got round to sleeping together is acknowledged as being a bit of an anomaly. Again, why this should be is related to the real meat of the story. Noreen announces that her other beau, Bobby Piro, has proposed to her and Arthur is resolutely polite. The only moment his mask of pleasantness slips is when he comments:
— He has black, shiny hair, Arthur guessed as if good naturedly.
I love that ‘as if’ and the heartbreak is contains. Noreen and Arthur talk through her impending marriage as friends but it’s quite clear that Noreen is giving Arthur one last chance to step in and sweep her off her feet before she marries someone else. Needless to say… Arthur misses his chance and his regret and self-hatred soon harden into something altogether more interesting:
After that night, she vanished. Not suddenly, but it did not take long. She married Bobby. It was as simple as a death, but it lasted longer. It seemed it would never go away. She lingered in his thoughts. Did he exist in hers? He often wondered. Did she still feel, even if only a little, the way he felt? The years seemed to have no effect on it. She was in New Jersey somewhere, in some place he could not picture. Probably there was a family. Did she ever think of him? Ah, Noreen.
My first observation about this is that it was entirely predictable: Having had a really bad experience with one guy, Noreen moved on by hooking up with a guy who was the exact opposite of the man who raped her. Arthur was safe, warm, funny, polite and seemed to desire nothing more than to spend time with her. As Salter put it all the way back in “Comet”:
He could have licked her palms like a calf does salt.
The very character traits that encouraged Noreen to spend time with Arthur were the ones that stopped him either proposing or trying to get her into bed. What fascinates me about Salter’s description of the aftermath of Noreen’s announcement is the sense that everything stopped for Arthur. He didn’t feel sore for a while and then get on with his life, he adapted to the hurt, the self-hatred and the bitterness. They seeped into his bones and stunted his emotional growth. He allowed them to change him as a person to the point where he spent the rest of his life basking in the afterglow of how Noreen made him feel that weekend when they went to the beach. His identity comes to rest on the assumption that he was once really happy and then never again. The story ends with Arthur and Noreen agreeing to meet up. Noreen repeatedly expresses her regret about deciding to marry Bobby and keeps hinting at the possibility of the pair of them getting back together. The coup-de-grace is right here:
— Isn’t it funny, she said, five minutes with you and it’s as if none of it ever happened.
Except of course that it did… Arthur quickly comes up with a lie about being engaged and the pair of them drift apart:
They were not really going to meet for lunch sometimes. He thought of the love that had filled the great chamber of his life and how he would not meet anyone like that again. He did not know what came over him, but on the street he broke into tears.
The meat of the story lies in trying to work out why Arthur refused to get back together with Noreen. One answer is that Arthur simply does not have it in him to have a relationship and he breaks down in tears because he knows that the quick meeting with Noreen will simply reproduce the same feelings of self-hatred and worthlessness that followed in the wake of their first break-up. He didn’t have it in him then to take the next step, he doesn’t have it in him now, and he absolutely hates himself for it.
This strikes me as a rather facile interpretation, not least because it simply evades the problem of why Arthur didn’t have it in him to marry Noreen in the first place. If Arthur didn’t have it in him to get married, why couldn’t he come to terms with being single? Arthur allowed Noreen to slip away because he was comfortable being the guy who didn’t get the girl. His failure to marry Noreen hurt but it was a pain that proved him right… his identity shifted from being the ugly guy who would never get to marry the pretty girl to being the ugly guy who let the pretty girl slip through his fingers. When Noreen comes back, he is faced with a similar choice: Marry Noreen and become someone new or let Noreen slip away and retain her as an emotional symbol of his own worthlessness. By the time she wanders back into his life, Arthur has transformed Noreen into an almost spiritual presence in his life. Thinking about how happy he was sustains him, thinking about how miserable he felt after she left reminds him of who he is. When Noreen comes back into his life, it is not just Arthur’s sense of self that runs into trouble, it is also the dream-Noreen that he has stuck in the back of his head:
It was hard to believe. She was twenty years older; she had gained weight, even her face showed it. She had been the most beautiful girl.
Arthur chooses to remain alone because it is easier to remain married to a memory than it is to marry a real person who will change, age, and die. Salter hints that Arthur is someone who remains unhealthily fixated on the past when he discusses one of Arthur’s co-workers. Morris:
Had been a partner, but after he retired there was nothing to do – he hated Florida and didn’t play golf – and so he came back to the firm and traded for himself. His age alone set him apart. He was a relic with perfect, false teeth and lived in some amberoid world with an aged wife. They all joked about him. The years had left him, as if marooned, alone at his desk in an apartment on Park Avenue no one had ever been to.
Arthur and his co-workers mock Morris because they can’t imagine his inability to move on. Morris retired to Florida but moved straight back to New York because he could not re-invent himself, he was so wedded to being a stock-broker that he refused to let go and become a retiree. Another reason Arthur breaks down in tears is because he realises that he made the same mistake as Morris. He too has an apartment that no one has ever been to and he too abandoned his shot at the good life because he couldn’t let go of the life he had. Arthur’s intuitive understanding of Morris’ mentality comes through in a wonderfully ambiguous scene early in the story:
She knew how, one day coming back from lunch, Arthur and Buddy had seen Morris lying in the street, his white shirt covered with blood. He had accidentally fallen, and there were two or three people trying to help him up. — Don’t look. Keep going, Arthur had said. — He’s lucky, having friends like you, Noreen had said.
The reason Arthur refuses to help Morris is that he understands Morris’ addiction to being the person he once was. He came back from Florida because he couldn’t accept that he was a retiree and it seems unlikely that he’d be able to accept becoming an old man who occasionally falls over in the street. Arthur doesn’t help Morris because he understands how humiliating it would be for Morris to have to work with people who know what a frail old man he has become. Seeing them every day would be a reminder of both his failure to change and his failure to remain the same. Even before he breaks up with Noreen, Arthur understands the importance of maintaining one’s beliefs… even when those beliefs have ceased to be useful and become actively harmful. He understands Morris even though he only realises much later that he is doomed to become him. Salter even says so early in the story:
He had taken as models the old-timers, men long gone