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James Salter's Last Night

James Salter's recent collection of stories, Last Night, portrays a world that I'm glad I don't live in. In a nutshell, a world populated by ageing or ailing morally-unmoored sensualists. Nobody's exactly nasty, but few are faithful if presented with a better offer. Moody men longing for pretty girls - or longing for the pretty girls that now older girls used to be - don't question themselves or their sense of entitlement. If you act like a man by, say, piling up a fortune on Wall Street, then you deserve a babe. I'm not saying that there aren't plenty of men with this outlook. I'm just glad that I don't know any of them very well. The commoditization of other people, even of one's own children, is rampant in this collection.

The stories are very well put together, though, and, once you've started, you keep going. Each story has its own little train wreck, and it's fascinating to watch, even if it leaves you feeling a bit compromised. Mr Salter is a master of heightening narrative impact by telling bits of his stories out of linear order and by withholding unsuspected revelations that make a dent, changing a story's contours completely.

I can't say a thing about the stories individually without risking spoilage, but I can say a few things about their interesting background. They occupy an affluent world, one that curiously combines a vague Jewish background with access to life at the top. One might argue that Mr Salter is a more refined and controlled Philip Roth, but with his West Point education and his very distinguished combat-flight record from the Korean War he is incomparably further from immigrant roots. And yet his men remain painfully self-conscious. If not in the sense of feeling awkward, they still need to have it known that they've been regulars at this restaurant and lived at that address. The following passage, from "My Lord You," one of the longer stories in the collection, captures the fatalistic atmosphere of Last Night.

Her husband's business was essentially one of giving advice. He had a life that served other lives, helped them come to agreements, end marriages, defend themselves against former friends. He was accomplished at it. Its language and techniques were part of him. He lived amid disturbance and self-interest but always protected from it. In his files were letters, memorandums, secrets of careers. One thing he had seen: how near men could be to disaster no matter how secure they seemed. He had seen events turn, one ruinous thing following another. It could happen without warning. Sometimes they were able to save themselves, but there was a point at which they could not. He sometimes wondered about himself - when the blow came and the beams began to give and come apart, what would happen?

"Ruinous things" usually involve some sort of uncontrolled carnal impropriety.

I don't often read fiction with a sense of profound recognition, as though the writer had peered into my very soul. I'm much too peculiar for that to happen. But I read Last Night as if it were set in a country that I'd never heard of before, where expectations were very different. Despite the craftsmanship and the beautifully sustained tone, the fact that I didn't encounter a single object of genuine curiosity in these pages obliges me to conclude that Last Night is limited work.


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Like most works that are crafted for a target audience, it sounds as if it lacks the true element of the universal. Let's hope Mr. Salter develops; sounds like he has the wherewithal to do so.

One may appreciate the aspects of such a work, but it never possesses that which makes anything from a nursery rhyme to a run at "The Great American Novel" speak to us all.

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