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Tipping Point Moments 

Salter's subtlety soars

Last Night
By James Salter (Knopf, 132 pages, $20)

James Salter's second book of short stories, Last Night, confirms his status as one of our finest literary craftsmen. The volume may be slim, but the effect of these 10 stories is anything but light. Salter, who publishes rarely, won the Pen/Faulkner Award in 1989 for his first story collection, Dusk, and his 1967 novel, End Sport and A Pastime, is regarded as an erotic masterpiece. The eroticism is at a minimum here, but Salter's incisive observations on the relationship between the sexes hasn't lost any of its bite. His characters often find themselves stripped of the social artifice normally protecting them, usually by some exposed secret or unforeseen event. In these unsuspected, tipping-point moments, their lives and relationships come into sharp, devastating focus.

In the opening "Comet," a wife exposes her husband's infidelity from another marriage, causing him to reflect that he "had done everything wrong, he realized, in the wrong order. He had scuttled his life." In the title story, a husband assists his terminally ill wife with her planned suicide, only to have his affair with the family's housekeeper exposed at the last moment. In "My Lord You," a young married woman's revulsion at the boorish antics of a drunken poet turns into obsession, revealing the fatal flaws in her own marriage.

But mere story synopses can't do Salter's work justice; as one reviewer admired, "Salter can break your heart with a sentence." He does it regularly in Last Night, capturing the essence of a character in simple, straightforward sentences that resonate with meaning. One character is "mannerly and elegant, his head held back a bit as he talked, as though you were a menu." An unhappy husband takes inventory of his wife's looks, saying of her face that it "was like a series of photographs, some of which ought to have been thrown away." Anyone who has bled or wept looking for just the right word, or admires those who find them, will find Salter's prose both humbling and inspiring. He's an American master, and Last Night proves he's still got the goods.

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