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
James Salter has always been one of my absolutely favourite writers. Part of my fascination with him arises from the fact that, in reality, there are many aspects of his writing that I don’t admire. He doesn’t write good stories, his characters are shallow and not memorable. He writes about a world of spoilt, middle-class Americans who one doesn’t want to meet. But there is something in the prose which frequently leaves one gasping. His writing is wonderfully banal and cruel and sensuous. He takes you right the reality of what it is to live in this world. He was undoubtedly one of the top prose stylists of the last century and the short story is a form which suits him well.
First published in The New Yorker, November 2002, and available to subscribers to read online here. Collected in Last Night, Alfred A. Knopf 2005/Picador, 2007
I love this author’s talent for conveying a mood, his ability to capture the emotional intensity of a moment in such graceful prose, irrespective of the context. Walter’s wife, Marit, is terminally ill with cancer. Unable to tolerate the pain any longer, Marit has asked Walter to hasten her death, a wish we assume he has agreed to carry out even though we are not privy to any of their earlier discussions. The story hinges on Marit and Walter’s last night together. Their final supper has ended, the lethal injection lies ready and waiting in the fridge, and the appointed time is approaching. We think we know how this story will unfold, how both of these individuals deserve our sympathies as they confront the nature of Marit’s mortality; but just when we least expect it, Salter wrongfoots us in the most surprising of ways, a move that prompts us to question our assumptions about values, morals, intentions and motives. This is a highly memorable story, one with the potential to haunt the reader for some considerable time.
First published in The New Yorker. Collected in Last Night, Alfred A. Knopf 2005/Picador, 2007. It is available to read online here
A spooky, sexy, not-quite ghost story, this one exemplifies many of the literary features traditionally associated with short fiction, particularly in terms of what it is that makes a good ending. For me, the tingliest moments of it come through the almost-whispered details: ‘They sat together in the living room as if they had come from a big party but were not quite ready for bed. Walter was thinking of what lay ahead, the light that would come on in the refrigerator when the door was opened.’ It’s a story I’d like someone to read to me in a darkened room.
First published in The New Yorker, 2002 and collected in Last Night: Stories (Picador) Read online.