On James Salter’s Last Night: Stories

James Salter’s Last Night is a collection which brings together ten short stories which attempts to render the process of loss and explores the ramification once this loss has finally manifested in the lives of men and women. The first story, ‘Comet,’ which is very reminiscent of Raymond Carver’s memorable story, ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,’ tells the story of Adele, who, in a small gathering with their friends, suddenly calls out her new husband, Phil, for what he did years prior to their initial meeting, for the moral transgression wherein he chose to abandon his first wife and his own child just so he could be with another woman. Phil, dumbfounded, is left mumbling silly little excuses, as the intoxicated Adele continues her barrage of accusations and judgment. At the end, Phil steps out of the room, onto the porch outside the house, staring into the sky, looking for a passing comet he has been aware for quote some time, while Adele begs him to ignore the celestial phenomenon and come back inside. ‘Such Fun,’ the fourth story, narrates a conversation among three friends, Leslie, Jane and Kathryn, all single again, free from the bonds of their constricting relationships. In Leslie’s apartment, they share drinks, dance wildly, like teenagers on a high, to some modern music blasting out of the stereo, and share with each other the problems they encountered during their previous relationships and the unfulfilled desires they continue to possess despite their age, which is beginning to catch up on them. Jane, weary, takes leave, and in the cab on the way to her place, she bursts into tears and confides in the driver that she has cancer. Finally, she realizes that among the three friends, she’s only one who will certainly not live to see the day where all her desires will be realized. In ‘Give,’ the fifth story, the readers are given witness to the relationship of an unnamed protagonist and Des, a poet. Initially, the story gives the impression that is one simple, platonic and beautiful friendship. The protagonist, out of kindness, even lets Des live in his home, to the enjoyment of our protagonist’s wife, Anna, and his yong son, Billy. It is then exposed that there the protagonist and Des has a sexual relationship going on, which is eventually revealed to us through Anna, who also begs Des to leave. The story ends as the protagonist kicks Des out of his home and out of his life, letting go of the one person that brought much-needed pleasure to his home. ‘Last Night,’ the last in the collection, tells the story of Walter, his wife, Marit, and Susanna, their friend, as they share one last night together. Marit is stuck with a disease which she had been battling for quite some time, and finally, she has surrendered. Marit then asks her dear husband to finally shoot her up with a deadly drug, so she can finally take leave of her life. On the same night, after Walter has done the deed, pursues her affections for Susanna and ends up making love to her. In the morning, Walter and Susanna finds out that Marit survived and has become a witness to their infidelity.

I find myself conflicted with James Salter collection and his way of writing stories. On one hand, I find myself in complete adoration of his rather minimalist, economical language. There was such precision in the rendering of details and in the writing of the dialogue. He is the kind of writer who’s each word bears an emotional weight that provides a substantial contribution to the overall tension of the work. Not only have that, the silence in between the words, the details and the conversations compliments this emotional heaviness. That is why when you begin a story from Last Night, you cannot help but see to it that you reach the conclusion. Also, the subject of his pieces, loss, family, commitment (or that lack of it), infidelity, have left me enamored. These are the kinds of short stories that I want to read. These subjects were the reason why I fell in love with the likes of John Updike, Lorrie Moore, Adam Haslett and John Cheever in the first place. But on the other hand, I find myself annoyed at the impatience of Salter’s short stories. All of them seem to be rushing towards their painful conclusions. I understand this is brevity. I understand that these are not the kinds of short stories that linger on for too long, but I find that not much time was given to the endings. They all seem pretty rushed to me. In ‘Such Fun,’ without warning, we our given the fact that Jane has cancer, without any warning at all, and ends with that. Worst of all, I found that the story did not deserve that kind of surprise, when there was no foregrounding or hints given in the first place. In ‘Give,’ Anna implores the unnamed protagonist to kick Des out of the house. And he just that, he kicks him out, in a dialogue that lasts half-a-page. The story then ends in one paragraph, in less that a hundred words, when I was thirsting for more, when I was in want to know the turmoil inside the protagonist’s mind, when I wanted to see Anna or Ben’s reaction. These kinds of endings, at least for this particular reader, left me unsatisfied. I wanted it to be longer, a page or two longer, just so I could really see the entirety of the conclusion lain out for me, not some bits and pieces of a wide and very large open ending that left me quite annoyed rather than affected.

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