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Paperback Last Night Book

ISBN: 1400078415

ISBN13: 9781400078417

Last Night

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Book Overview

Last Night is a spellbinding collection of stories about passion-by turns fiery and subdued, destructive and redemptive, alluring and devastating. These ten powerful stories portray men and women in their most intimate moments. A lover of poetry is asked by his wife to give up what may be his most treasured relationship. A book dealer is forced to face the truth about his life. And in the title story, a translator assists his wife's suicide, even...

Customer Reviews

5 ratings

A little like hot chocolate

I discovered Salter last year in Joyce Carol Oats' review of "Last Night," appearing in the New York Review of Books. The 10 short stories in this slim little volume are further examples supporting the consensus among a number of reviewers that Salter is a writer's writer. Most of the stories deal with what appears to be a romantic loving relationship. But, it turns out that there is something about each relationship that is not quite honest, and therein lies the "thud" that grabs you as the story ends. It is sometimes perplexing to know just what that "thud" that hit you is all about. I feel it as an "uneasiness" that these upper middle class, refined people are not quite what they appear to be, and that a good part of what seems to be important in their lives is built on illusion or self-delusion --and then the truth is exposed!!! Oh horror! Oh! the relationship that we began with will never be again what it was then!! I particularly liked "Comet". Each time I read it I see something new in the way Salter economically but skilfully tells us important things about his characters. The "thud" feeling I got on reading it for the first time reminded me of one of Hemingway's own favorites, "Hills like White Elephants." I also liked "Arlington", a story about a soldier's lapse of loyalty to country and to corps to possess his love object. His description of what Arlington is to soldiers is sensitive,nostalgic yet forthright: "With a sound at first faint but then clopping rhythmically he heard the hooves of horses, a team of six black horses with three erect riders and the now-empty caisson that had carried the coffin, the large spoked wheels rattling on the road. The riders, in their dark caps, did not look at him. The gravestones in dense, unbroken lines curved along the hillsides and down toward the river, as far as he could see, all the same height with here and there a larger, gray stone like an officer, mounted, amid the ranks. In the fading light they seemed to be waiting, fateful, massed as if for some great assault." This story reminded me of "A Very Short Story" also one of Hemingway's.

Of love and regret

All these stories concern romantic relationships told in a double time-frame, in which events in the present trigger memories of the past. All are incredibly spare and powerful, with characters, atmosphere, an entire affair evoked by a single concrete detail or turn of phrase. Many have no plot, with the suspense of the story created entirely by the manner in which the author reveals the facts, by what he leaves unsaid as much as by what he writes. In a very few instances, the author's manipulation is just a little too obvious, in a O. Henry sort of way. But these are the exceptions, and even they are utterly gripping. Some stories look back on happiness squandered or simply lost; the general tone is one of regret. But against this, in several tales, there is the older-but-wiser ability to find contentment in some relationship that may be less spectacular, but can stand the test of time. Other readers have commented on the similarity between the stories in this collection, but to me this gives them an accumulated strength akin to a theme-and-variations structure in music.

Exquisite sentences that drop like coins

You could say about this collection: "These aren't stories, they're sketches." And you'd have a point. But the thing about Salter is that he shows you only what's needed, then invites you to imagine the rest. This was true in his 1967 novel, A Sport and a Pastime. Almost 40 years later, it still is. When I think of Salter, I'm reminded of John Updike's remark, "A psychoanalyst talking is like playing golf on the moon --- even a chip shot carries for miles." Salter hits chip shots. Many will find this writing overly mannered. Yes, there are crumpled napkins on tables uncleared from last night's dinner party: "glasses still with dark remnant on them, coffee stains, and plates with bits of hardened Brie." Privileged women pine for love -- or sex. At a man's funeral, there are women the widow has never seen before. A married man is having an affair with a male friend. A hill is made from a pile of junked cars. A romantic opportunity is missed. Salter is too discreet to shove the engine room of life into our faces, but it's very much there. One story ends with a woman dying of cancer --- a young woman. Another focuses on an older woman on what is to be the final night of her life: "She had a face now that was for the afterlife and those she would meet there." The sentences drop, regular as coins. Salter's cadences are so hypnotic it's easy to miss them. But they are arrows to the real subject of these stories, which are, like the best stories about adult men and women, about honor and love in the face of death. "Last Night." 132 pages. Ten stories. They may read like trifles, like exercises, like parlor tricks --- but you can't forget them. Could it be because they are small masterpieces?

Perfect Stories

These ten stories are simply perfect and therefore pretty much impossible to describe. From "Last Night" with its beautifully ambiguous title, the first story I read, to "Platinum," the last one I read, there is not one superfluous word in Mr. Salter's elegant prose. He can describe a person or place with a word or two; or when he's being long-winded, he may need a complete sentence. A retarded six-year old swimming in a pond has an anxious face "above the surface like a dog's." A dog is simply "yellow-eyed." A woman who is past 40 had "only her personality and good nature by that time, the rest, as she herself would say, had turned into a size fourteen." Another woman's only fault is that she didn't like to cook. "She couldn't cook and talk at the same time." Although many of Mr. Salter's characters are upper middleclass, they don't appear to be much better off than the rest of us. They just meet in nicer hotels to commit their adulteries. Some of them lead lives of quiet desperation. Mr. Salter is also the master of understated irony. For example, in "Last Night," arguably the best story in this small collection, a terminally ill woman plans her suicide with assistance from her husband and invites a young woman, "a family friend," to dine with her and her husband for her last supper. This quiet little story, as Garrison Keillor would say, will blow your head off. Short stories do not get better than these.

A reader's writer

Perhaps somewhere out there in America there are people who live like characters in James Salter novels, but I sincerely hope not. These are unpleasant, haunted and pathological people, and it is Salter's genius that you not only want to spend time with these sociopaths, but want to take them home, hand them a few drinks and listen to them talk. Salter's gift is as adamantine as ever in "Last Night," but unlike in his earlier classics like "Sport and a Pastime" and "Light Years," the erotic edge has been dulled by age and regret. None of the stories has an obvious beginning, end or `dramatic arc,' and the collection is much more interesting for that. Highly recommended for anyone who has stopped believing in happy endings.
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