Colin Barrett’s Young Skins: “The Moon”

Short story Short: This is yet another story about the impossibly fierce, beautiful and unapproachable women living in the fictional Irish town of Glanbeigh.

Short story Long: This follows the example set by “Bait” in so far as it takes the basic gender dynamics explored in “The Clancy Kid” and deepens the analysis by exporting it to a slightly different relationship. The result is a surprisingly humane short story about the crisis of masculinity and how young women react to the collapse of male identities. It also touches on the idea of change and how making positive changes in one’s life often requires levels of energy that are drained by the very things that would make you want to make those changes in the first place.

When change is impossible one can only settle and “The Moon” is as much a story about a woman’s refusal to settle as it is about a man finding comfort and stability in the misery that surrounds him.

Continue reading →

Colin Barrett’s Young Skins: “Bait”

“Bait” closely resembles “The Clancy Kid” in that it is another story about the gender dynamics of Barrett’s fictional Irish town. In Glanbeigh, the young women are fierce and exotic creatures while the young men are so devoid of agency that they seem as though they could turn into furniture at any moment.

In both stories, a hopeless young local moves into the orbit of an impossibly glamorous local girl who brings something resembling happiness into his life only for it to be snatched away. Incapable either of grasping why the relationship came to an end or finding a replacement source of happiness, the young men fall into a pit of nostalgic self-loathing that prevents any and all forward motion. They simply cannot get over letting such gorgeous and exotic creatures slip through their fingers.

This is not just problematic, it is also profoundly unhealthy and the fact that all the men keep falling into the same hideous trap is a comment both upon the fucked up nature of the town’s male inhabitants and the fucked up nature of the town. If “The Clancy Kid” is a broad introduction to the pathological sexism of Glanbeigh then “Bait” is a look at the ugly masculinity that fuels it.

 

Continue reading →

Colin Barrett’s Young Skins: “The Clancy Kid”

Having spent some time among the upper middle-class Americans of James Salter’s Last Night, I decided to go somewhere different for my next series of pieces about short fiction. Set in the fictitious Irish town of Glanbeigh, Colin Barrett’s debut collection Young Skins is less interested in plot and character than it is in the idea of place and how specific places can yield specific mind-sets that reproduce themselves through both language and relationships. Much like Salter, Barrett makes no attempt to distance himself from a male point-of-view but where Salter is wise and deliberate, Barrett is mystified and overwhelmed.

The first story in the collection sets the terms of engagement: “The Clancy Kid” introduces us not only to the town and the type of characters that Barrett has chosen to write about but also how his stories relate to the present. Yes… I know that’s a strange thing to comment but I’ll unpack what I mean a bit further on.

Continue reading →

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.

Continue reading →

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.

 

Continue reading →

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’.

Continue reading →