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Last Night by James Salter: “Arlington”

August 26, 2015

I am aware that my pieces about the stories in this collection have been growing increasingly ill-tempered. At first, Salter’s elliptical methods and saw-tooth stylings enchanted me but the novelty has worn off and left me frustrated by his decision to keep re-visiting the same themes and characters over and over and over again. Especially seeing as those themes and characters are actually quite generic once you move beyond the wonderful crunchiness of Salter’s technical panache.

My piece about “Bangkok” – the previous story in this collection – contains an embryonic account of Salter’s affective economics but while “Arlington” does inspire me to modify this theory, it is a story that falls well within the narrow thematic parameters of what is ultimately a very disciplined collection.

In my previous piece, I suggested that most of the stories in Last Night are about the individual’s relationship with the Good Life, as determined by Salter. A more accurate account of the collection is that it revolves around three broad character types:

  • People who have completely devoted themselves to a life of hedonistic passion. Salter portrays these people as awe-inspiring in that their absolute commitment to the Id has rendered them both glorious and more than a little terrifying. Think of the actress in “Eyes of the Stars”, the mistress in “Platinum”, the poet in “My Lord You” and the female character in “Bangkok”.
  • People who have actively chosen to turn their backs on the Good Life. Salter portrays these people as weak and contemptuous cowards whose commitment to bourgeois institutions such as work and family serve only to mask a deep and all-consuming bitterness about their own failure to pursue the Good Life. Think of Arthur in “Palm Grove”, Hollis in “Bangkok”, the wife in “Comet” and Jane in “Such Fun”.
  • People who have tasted the fruit of the Good Life and have endeavoured to pursue it only to find themselves tragically and unwillingly hamstrung by either personality or circumstance. These people are also destined to live lives of quiet regret but their momentary closeness to the Good Life makes them noble. Think of the husbands in “Platinum” and “Comet” or the TV Producer in “Eyes of the Stars”.

The first two character types form polar extremes and while Salter litters his stories with examples of both types, he isn’t really interested in the psychology of the people at either pole: Those living the Good Life are awesome demigods and those uninterested in the Good Life are nothing more than empty husks. The people who really interest Salter are those who are still in the process of determining where they stand relative to the two extremes. Salter’s sympathy for his own characters depends largely upon how much effort they put into their failed attempt at the Good Life: Those who take risks, make sacrifices and still fail are deemed noble and tragic while those who shrug their shoulders and walk away are destined to be hollowed-out by regret. In my previous piece, I compared Salter’s affective economics to the sexual economics explored in Michel Houellebecq’s Whatever but Salter brings to Houellebecq a vision of the Protestant work ethic under which we are all duty-bound to seek out anal sex and threesomes lest we be found morally wanting.

“Arlington” is a story that features all three Salterian character types and the moral dynamics that unite them.

 

Arlington

 

I quite enjoyed “Arlington” because I think it plays to Salter’s strengths a lot more than some of the stories in this collection. Looking back over the various pieces I’ve written about Last Night, it occurs to me that a lot of the stories rest upon a single conversation: We get backstory, we get flashback, and we get consequences but everything boils down to a single exchange that determines where the protagonist falls on the great continuum between thrusting demigods and flaccid losers. “Arlington” shares this structure but rather than building towards an exchange that dominates the story’s foreground, Salter has the main conversation happen in the opening pages of the story and then glosses over much of what is actually said. This forces the reader to comb through the stuff around the conversation in search of clues that shed light on the story’s primary psychological dynamic. Salter is much better at evocation than description and this is definitely an evocative piece of writing.

The story revolves around a soldier experiencing marital difficulties. Newell, we are told, married a Czech woman who turned out to be one of those Salterian demigods who inspire desire and fear in almost equal measure. Intriguingly, Salter begins the story by describing the woman in quite subtle terms:

In the kitchen the Czech wife had her shoes off and was painting her toenails. She looked up briefly when Westerveldt came in. He saw the exotic, European mouth.

I love this description partly because of the sheer WTF-ery of the phrase “exotic, European mouth” but also because of the fact that she is sat in the kitchen painting her toenails. Though an entirely mundane activity in and of itself, it’s the type of thing that men didn’t used to see until they developed intimate relationships with women. It’s easy to imagine the character sitting on a kitchen chair with her foot wedged up on the edge of the seat in a way that shows off her legs… it hints at a certain degree of ‘hipness’ about personal space and intimacy… it whispers sexual availability in the dead language of the 1950s.

At the opposite extreme is Westerveldt an “acting adjutant” who heard about Newell’s marital difficulties and decided to step in and have a quiet word with the couple on the grounds that all of that late-night screaming was “jeopardizing” Newell’s career. Westerveldt prides himself on being able to talk to women and he’s respected by the men because he used to be a player… oh yes:

He’d had a long love affair with a woman in Naples when he’d been stationed there, a marquesa, in fact. If he resigned his commission and married her, she would buy him whatever he wanted. He could even have a mistress.

However, Westerveldt chose not to marry the open-minded marquesa:

In the end he married a woman from San Antonio, a divorcee with a child and they had two more together. He was fifty-eight when he died from some kind of leukemia that began as a strange rash on his neck.

Westerveldt warns Newell about his relationship with the Czech woman but there’s no telling him… he’s so in love that he winds up using his position to steal a load of radios that pay off her debts and land him in prison for a year, prompting her to leave him and him to leave the military:

The woman Newell later married knew nothing of all that or almost nothing. She was older than he was with two grown children and bad feet, she could only walk short distances, from the car to the supermarket.

I love the detail that she could only walk from the car to the supermarket: Suburban hell for you Newell!

Predictably, Newell is filled with regret about how he allowed the Czech woman with the exotic, European mouth to slip through his fingers. What distinguishes “Arlington” from other stories in this collection is the way that Salter tries to find some nobility in Westerveldt’s decision. Newell may well be rotting from regret but Westerveldt is portrayed as someone who managed to find a place in the universe:

The gravestones in dense, unbroken lines curved along the hillside and down toward the river, as far as he could see, all the same height with here and there a larger, gray stone like an officer, mounted, amid the ranks. In the fading light they seemed to be waiting, fateful, massed as if for some great assault. For a moment he felt exalted by it, by the thought of all these dead, the history of the nation, its people. It was hard to get into Arlington. He would never lie there; he had given that up long ago. He would never know the days with Jana again, either. He remembered her at that moment as she had been, when she was so slender and young. He was loyal to her. It was one-sided, but that was enough.

Westerveldt is buried in Arlington near his parents who earned their spot through service to the nation, service that gave their passionless lives meaning and imbued them with an air of nobility that Salter seems reluctant to extend to any of the other bourgeois mediocrities in this collection.

Given that Salter was in the armed forces, it would be interesting to know whether he actually intended this story to suggest that a career in the military is the only viable alternative to a life devoted to anal sex and threesomes. I suspect that was not his intent and so I choose to read this story as shifting Salter’s affective economics away from suggesting that the Good Life is all about self-destructive passion and towards suggesting that it’s all about making a commitment rather than drifting through life regretting the paths you chose not to walk.

This is certainly a more balanced account of the Good Life but it is also considerably more generic and comes dangerously close to the hollow truism that the best way to avoid regretting your decisions is to not regret any of the decisions you have made. Clearly, Salter believes that an absolute commitment to hedonism is a lifestyle that is both stable and sustainable in the long-term. He also believes that throwing yourself into such bourgeois institutions as the military and the arts can also yield a semblance of contentment but why those institutions? Why is sexual pleasure a natural basis for identity whereas everything else gets only reluctant and lukewarm support?

Maybe I’m approaching this from the wrong direction… maybe Last Night isn’t about sex but about regret. If so then Last Night must be read as a collection of stories about the uniquely unsettling power of sex. Maybe Salter’s real argument is that while nobody goes to their grave regretting career decisions, most people regret that one chance to spend a week in Bangkok with someone who terrifies them almost as much as they turn them on. Maybe Salter identifies with the Newells of this world… maybe he went to his grave regretting that he didn’t have more threesomes. Seen in this life, Last Night seems to be suggesting that sex is the ultimate corrosive… the one thing that can turn a life of accomplishment into a shrug of disappointment.

 

4 Comments
  1. August 27, 2015 11:24 am

    I know already about Salter’s unusual (that is, to my mind, eccentric) approach to commas (Mary Norris talks about this in her book, Between You and Me) but I am mesmerised by that comma between ‘exotic’ and ‘European’. Norris was so mesmerised by the way he employed them, she actually wrote to him to ask him about his thoughts on commas. He said that ‘punctuation can contribute to the music and rhythm of the sentences’ and yet, all that comma does for me is to provide a mental tree root to fall over. Norris comments that ‘James Salter does have some untoward ideas about what you can do with commas and imputes to them a power that verges on magic. The writer is not always the best judge of his own effects, but at least he’s thinking about it. The comma does not fix everything. Sometimes it gets in the way’.

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  2. August 27, 2015 2:05 pm

    Hi Maureen!

    I guess the comma is there to suggest that the mouth is both exotic and European and that the exoticism is present DESPITE the mouth’s European origins.

    I haven’t written much about the punctuation because I’m not really all that conscious of it. Punctuation that completely alters the meaning of sentences doesn’t crop up that often and when I’m reading I tend to just automatically pick a reading and stick with it. It’s mostly just a pain when I’m spell-checking :-)

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  3. August 28, 2015 7:37 am

    You know me. I can’t stop looking at punctuation. :-)

    I accept the first half of your reading of the phrase, but given what Norris quoted Salter as saying to her, the ‘despite’ seems not contained within the comma. Salter seems to think that inserting a comma there, separating the exotic from the European, although he does intend them to belong together, for the mouth to be both exotic and European, presumably exotic because it is European, emphasises both elements of the phrase. Which I guess it does in that I look at them and start wondering why he separates them like that, but not in the way he intends. Instead, it makes me start wondering what exactly he means by European, beyond it being the mouth of a European woman. in trying to emphsais one thing, he inadvertently emphasises another.

    I guess he is not an author for copy editors.

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  4. August 28, 2015 7:39 pm

    There are enough authors out there playing fast and loose with the rules of punctuation… Grammar must bend to authorial fiat! :-)

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