Last Night by James Salter: “Bangkok”
One of the most interesting things about working my way through a collection of literary short stories has been the obviousness of the author’s ideological assumptions. Most of the short fiction I have read between now and the end of my schooling has been science fictional and genre writers have grown quite adept at cloaking any personal beliefs in a combination of irony, abstraction and re-iteration. The majority of genre authors may be left-wing but most of the genre’s tropes are right-wing and so you often have to pay attention to the background or the words of secondary characters in order to gain a glimpse of what the author actually believes. This type of deep-reading and second-guessing is not necessary in Salter’s fiction: His assumptions about the nature of the good life are right there in the foreground of everything he writes.
Like most people, Salter is clearly no monolith. His ideas about the benefits of passion vs. the benefits of emotional control wax and wane with every story and so a story like “Comet” can unambiguously champion the idea of a life devoted to hedonistic passion while “Eyes of the Stars”, “My Lord You” and “Give” can strike notes of caution. All of the stories in this collection are about the wealthy and middle-aged and most of these people are being quietly devoured by regret and yearning for that one moment where they might have given themselves over entirely to pleasure. Though occasionally dismissive and judgemental of the people who live under a cloud of permanent regret, Salter does try to sympathise with the people who simply aren’t capable of living that type of lifestyle. In fact, “Platinum” and “Palm Court” are both quite explicitly about the quasi-Darwinian forces that exclude the weak and un-committed from Salter’s idea of the good life.
I use terms like “weak” and “un-committed” advisedly as while Salter does recognise that not everyone is going to pursue his idea of the good life, he struggles to understand why anyone would turn their back on it except as a result of trauma or timidity. In fact, I am almost tempted to say that Last Night is Salter’s failed attempt to write his way into an understanding of people who value emotional stability over passion, hence the number of stories that turn out to be about regret.
In the comments to my piece about “Palm Court”, Brendan C. Byrne says:
I think it might be better considered as a pair with the following entry, “Bangkok”, another two-hander with the same themes, though more bare and bitter. Together they ruminate on the “lost” love which animates the man’s history but which seems far more slight to the woman, and what the return of the fetishized figure of the past creates (mostly just an unsuccessful challenge to the pathological).
I mostly agree with this reading but I think that it’s the bareness and bitterness of “Bangkok” that makes it the more interesting story of the two: “Bangkok” and “Palm Court” are both about a woman trying to rekindle a relationship that she once sabotaged and a man who refusing to commit to the demands of a passionate life and hating himself for it too. The difference between the two stories is that “Bangkok” strips away the narratives that the characters tell about themselves. This story is Last Night boiled down to a thick black paste, you take your shot at a life defined by amazing sex or you sit on the side-lines resenting your decision forever.
“Bangkok” is another short work and so Salter does not have a huge amount of room in which to manoeuver.
Hollis is a man who runs his own rare book shop. The fact that he runs a book shop is important as Salter seems to associate book-fetishism with a propensity for valuing things in an abstracted and sterilised fashion. For example, while Hollis does volunteer that the “Jean le Negre” section of E.E. Cummings’ The Enormous Room is “still unrivalled”, his more expansive judgement is limited to the book’s physical condition:
e.e. cummings, The Enormous Room, dust jacket with small chips at bottom, minor soil on title page, otherwise very good. First edition. The price was marked in pencil on the corner of the flyleaf at the top.
Carol is Hollis’ old lover. They share some friends, they share some memories and it is quite obvious that Hollis never got over Carol:
— Love you? He was leaning back in the chair. For the first time she had the impression he might have been drinking a little more than usual these days. Just the look of his face. I though about you every minute of the day, he said. I loved everything you did. What I liked was that you were absolutely new and everything you said and did was. You were incomparable. With you I felt I had everything in life, everything anyone ever dreamed of. I adored you.
Compare this to Arthur’s memories of Noreen from “Palm Court”:
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!
However, unlike Noreen who comes sniffing around Arthur only to find that he has become overly attached to being the guy who let her get away, Carol approaches Hollis with offers of sexual transgression designed to provoke and enrage.
After arriving at Hollis’ flat and meeting his partner, Carol teases him with the idea of the conversation the two women might have had:
— I asked her if you still liked to have your cock sucked.
She then asks after Hollis’ daughter in a way that sexualises a six year-old child:
— A perfect little body. I can picture it. Do you give her baths? I bet you do. You’re a model father, the father every little girl ought to have. How will you be when she’s bigger, I wonder? When the boys start coming around.
— There’s not going to be a lot of boys coming around.
— Oh, for God’s sake. Of course, there will. They’ll be coming around just quivering. You know that. She’ll have breasts and that first, soft pubic hair.
She then suggests that Hollis could go to a bar and pick up some younger girls and then invites him to join her on holiday in a way designed to make Hollis feel bad about the life he has:
— We’re going to stay in Bangkok for a couple of months, perhaps come back through Europe, Carol said. Molly has a lot of style. She was dancer. What was Pam, wasn’t she a teacher or something? Well, you love Pam, you’d love Molly. You don’t know her, but you would. She paused. Why don’t you come with us? She said.
I love the line “Well, you love Pam, you’d love Molly. You don’t know her, but you would.” And the way it ties back to Molly being a dancer. The suggestion is that the love Hollis has for Pam is effectively the same thing as the desire he might feel for a woman he doesn’t even know… Carol doesn’t recognise the kind of love that comes from deep kinship and shared experience, only the love that comes from noting that someone has a dancer’s body.
Carol unpacks this attitude in an exchange that pretty much captures the essence of Salter’s ideas about the good life:
— Leave my family and business, just like that?
— Gauguin did it.
— I’m a little more responsible than that. Maybe it’s something you would do.
— If it were a choice, she said. Between life and…
— Life and a kind of pretend life. Don’t act as if you didn’t understand. There’s nobody that understands better than you.
Most of the stories in this collection present existence as something boiling down to a single choice between living for the purposes of pleasure and “a kind of pretend life” that one would settle for but never actively choose. Much like Arthur, Hollis is presented with a second shot at the good life and turns it down thereby suggesting that he was never capable of it in the first place.
Carol’s childish provocations are Noreen’s entreaties with the sentiment and self-justificatory psychobabble stripped from her words. Noreen speaks of rekindling old flames and good times whereas in reality her offer is of sex, pleasure and the chance to own the “warmhearted girl with her legs, her fragrance, and perfect little ears that were tuned to him”.
Hollis’s explanation for turning down Carol is a similarly unadorned version of that offered by Athur in “Palm Court”: Salter suggests that Arthur is so comfortable being the guy who let the girl get away that he cannot cope with the idea of being the guy who got the girl. Hollis, on the other hand, has only vague platitudes that ring hollow the second he vocalises them:
— I have something more than that now. I have a wife I love and a kid.
— It’s such a cliché, isn’t it? A wife I love.
— It’s just the truth.
— And you’re looking forward to the years together, the ecstasy.
— It’s not ecstasy.
— You’re right.
The fascinating thing is that when Salter strips his characters all the way back to brass tacks, he can understand the allure of the trips to Bangkok but not the wanting to run a business or grow old in the bosom of a loving family. Carol’s vision of the good life is clear and well-articulated but Hollis has nothing to offer but clichés and semantics.
Salter is quite right to describe the lives of people like Hollis and Arthur as ‘pretend’ but their artificiality is solely a product of Salter’s lack of empathy, not the lives themselves. Stripped of all pretence and self-justification, the only emotion that Salter can understand these people having is regret:
The best thing was to resume work. He knew what he skin felt like, it was silky. He should not have listened.
On the soft, silent keys he began to write: Jack Kerouac, typed letter signed (“Jack”), 1 page, to his girlfriend, the poet Lois Sorrells, single-paced, signed in pencil, slight crease from folding. It was not a pretend life.
The more I read of Salter’s work, the more I realise that we see the world in very different terms.
Salter’s vision of the good life as an orgasmic font for which one must forego other — more subtle – pleasures is as unconvincing to me as those pop songs that go on and on about how amazing it’s going to be down at the ‘clerb’. You may very well see nightclubs as a portal into happiness and potential but I have always seen them as cramped and smelly places where you tolerate having people spill beer on your shoes for the sake of seeing that one band you happen to like. Any song whose vision of the good life centres on clubbing is not likely to move me and I have a similar reaction to Salter’s suggestion that the secret to a happy life is a shitload of blow-jobs.
I think we are supposed to read “Bangkok” and think Hollis a fool but I cannot understand why anyone would want to spend time with someone like Carol. Yeah… yeah… blow-jobs and threesomes but at the end of the day, it’s just cum. The bliss fades, the post-coital tristesse sets in and then you’re stuck in Bangkok having to talk to someone who thinks it’s funny and provocative to suggest that you might want to fuck your six year-old daughter.
The more I read of Last Night, the more I am reminded of Houellebecq’s Whatever, which looks at sexuality in much the same way as Marxism examines the flow of capital and how it affects our society. Just as Capitalism has used the promise of personal freedom to sell crushing inequality, our society has used the language of self-expression and Freudian desire to sell sex in a way that really only benefits the handsome and libidinous. Everyone else is left to sit on their own feeling disgusting and wondering why they can’t have the seventeen orgasms a week that they’re supposed to be having. The link between the two texts is that the wealthy often castigate the poor for their timidity, laziness and weakness and Salter seems to be buying into the exact same fiction: Let’s face it… the only reason you’re not having mind-blowing sex right now is because you missed your chance to date that one person fifteen years ago. What’s that? You’re not really that interested in sex or you claim to enjoy the sex you have? Sure… you tell yourself that if it helps you get through the night. What a fucking loser.
There’s a bitterness and a harshness to “Bangkok” but I think it’s a harshness that is present in virtually all the stories in this collection.