‘Last Night’ by James Salter

James Salter understands the human psyche, its needs and its frailties, and he describes them in clear, matter-of-fact prose that shows subtlety and allusion. This particular story tackles several difficult themes such as the ethics of assisted suicide, faith and the disintegration of a marriage under the pressures of an extramarital affair. The setting is suburban and the third person narrator describes the events leading up to the wife’s last night. The wife in question has persuaded her husband to help her die, but before this can happen, they go for a final meal at a fancy restaurant with a young woman who is helping them with the garden. Salter paints an exquisite picture of the restaurant scene where death hangs over the tinkle of glasses and murmur of polite conversation. He uses flashbacks to reveal the events that occurred before the beginning of the story or in the historical past of the story. 

They ate dinner in silence. Her husband did not look at her. her face annoyed him, he did not know why. She could be good-looking but there were times when she was not. Her face was like a series of photographs, some of which ought to have been thrown away. Tonight it was like that.

His characters may be haunted by death and disappointment, but Salter never judges them, never even pretends to round them. They remain elusive, shadowy figures, as mysterious to the readers as to themselves. The reader seldom has any extraneous details and sometimes I wasn’t sure where the story was taking place or even the decade. Endings were sometimes so subtle I had to reread to see if I’d missed some clue.

As one of the protagonists says in this story, “You think you know someone, you think because you have dinner with them or play cards, but you really don’t. It’s always a surprise. You know nothing.”

First published in The New Yorker, November 2002, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Last Night, Knopf, 2005 and The Collected Stories, Picador, 2013

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