Last Night by James Salter: “Last Night”

While I have tried my best to stay out of the way of any essays or reviews that might have distorted my take on this collection, I had heard that the final eponymous story was something special. I imagine there’s an art to the ordering of short story collections, maybe you start strong in order to grab the attention, hide the weaker stories in the middle, and end with fireworks in an effort to ensure that readers walk away from the book with a good impression of the author. Art as cognitive psychology… you always remember the first things and the final things but the stuff in the middle fades quite quickly. Last Night certainly started strongly only to become stuck in a rut of photocopied themes and stock characters, did Salter have it in him to go out with a bang? Well… yes.

I can certainly see why “Last Night” would stick in some reviewers’ memories; it seems considerably more accessible than a lot of the stories in the collection and while it too revisits those themes of middle-aged regret and sexual yearning, it does so in a style more reminiscent of O. Henry or Roald Dahl than James Salter. Much like “Give”, “Last Night” is ostensibly all about the twist in the tale while the really interesting stuff lies buried in sub-text and the details of character psychology. Like many of the best stories in this collection “Last Night” appears to be about one thing but is actually about another.

 

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Last Night by James Salter: “Arlington”

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.

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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.

 

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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. Continue reading →

Last Night by James Salter: “Platinum”

Now this is a bit more fucking like it! “Give” and “Such Fun” have their moments but both stories rely rather too heavily on grand reveals to do their work. The grand reveal that forces one to re-evaluate the entire story is a very heavy-handed technique and I think that Salter’s stories work better when his touch is lighter and readers are left to come to their own conclusions. I don’t know whether I am getting better at deciphering Salter but “Platinum” felt completely transparent to me… I read it once and then read it again but I was never left scratching my head in the way I did with those earlier stories. Despite being quite accessible, “Platinum” contains some of my favourite writing in the collection to date.

The story opens with a description of a magnificent apartment overlooking Central Park. The apartment was bought for a small fortune a number of years ago and now it is almost the almost priceless home of a true patriarch, a man who has made a fortune helping the poor and the innocent only to them spend that money making life better for the people around him:

He was a figure of decency and honor, like the old men described by Cicero who planted orchards they would not live to see fruit from, but did it out of a sense of responsibility and respect for the gods, he had a desire to bequeath the best of what was known to his descendants.

This pillar of the community is married to a woman who is intelligent, has no interest in cooking but for whom grace, generosity and good manners are as natural as breathing. When she first met the patriarch Brule’s children she seduced them with a promise of unquestioning love and loyalty:

— Look, she had said to his daughters when she and Brule were married, I’m not your mother and I never can be, but I hope that we’ll be friends. If we are, good, and if not, you can count on me for anything.

Reading this, I am reminded of how consistently brilliant Salter is with this type of emotional engineering. These are good people, they do good things and you cannot help but fall in love with them and their little eccentricities; Brule’s insistence upon walking to work, Pascale’s refusal to cook on the grounds that she cannot talk at the same time. This is a family you desperately want to belong to… how could you not? And if that line about being able to count on Pascale for anything weren’t enough, check this out:

You belonged to the family, not as someone who happened to be married to a daughter, but entirely. You were one of them, one for all and all for one. The oldest daughter, Grace, had told her husband,

— You have to really get used to the plural of things now.

“The plural of things”… The remedy to fear, isolation and existential loneliness condensed down to four words and delivered with all the lethal accuracy of a shot to the head. This is not a family that demands loyalty or makes you work for its trust… it simply takes your ‘I’ and turns it into ‘We’.

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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. Continue reading →

Last Night by James Salter: “Such Fun”

Looking back over the pieces I have written about this collection I am struck by the fact that I’ve effectively been dancing around an idea first put forward by the German poet, playwright and theatre director Bertolt Brecht.

Brecht was a life-long committed Marxist at a time when that meant something other than being an academic. As a Marxist, Brecht was concerned about the purpose of the theatre and people’s tendency to use it as a source of escapism and/or moral complacency: Turn up at a show, identify with one of the characters, experience their moral gyrations at one step removed, go back to your life without even pausing for self-reflection. Brecht’s response to this tendency was to develop a form known as ‘epic theatre’ that encouraged the audience to engage critically with his plays rather than relying on more traditional forms of engagement such as searching for strong characters with which to identify.

Brecht would pursue this end by deploying what he called Verfremdungseffekt, which is often translated as ‘distancing effect’, ‘estrangement effect’ or simply ‘the V-effekt’. The best known distancing effects are those that draw attention to the play’s status as a fictional conceit by breaking down the fourth wall, anything to prevent the audience from relaxing into a passive state and treating the text of the play as some sort of inviolable entity. Given the universality of postmodernism and the frequent use of meta-fictional conceits in popular culture, I suspect that today’s writers have to work considerably harder to force their audience onto a critical footing but the basic principle of the verfremdungseffekt remains intact: You cannot encourage your audience both to suspend their disbelief and to treat your text as an intriguing fiction. An audience that is engaging critically with a text is not surrendering to your attempts at emotional manipulation and an audience that has submitted to a series of carefully curated emotional experiences will be either unwilling or incapable of engaging with a text in a dispassionate fashion. Audiences can, of course, move from one footing to another but they can’t do both things at once.

The reason I mention the verfremdungseffekt is that I think something similar is going on in this collection. Every story thus far uses literary techniques to encourage us to identify with a character and their needs only for Salter to hide much of his real intent in little details that only become apparent when you step back from the stories and survey them not as the journeys of particular characters but as the interaction of different ideas and themes. This effect is definitely at work in “Such Fun”, one of the shorter stories included in this collection.

 

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