Reviewed by Nicholas Hogg
Spare, meticulously crafted, each story in Last Night is fleetingly told. No words are wasted on excessive description or biographical information, and when the shards glitter and reveal that moment of ephemeral "truth" this pared down style is the gleaming and precise prose Salter is revered for.
But when occasionally the empty spaces confuse, leaving the reader befuddled rather than informed with their own mind struggling to work the details, the story fails to engage – either through thin characterization or narrative confusion. With such Salter skimping, more than two or three characters can overpopulate the telling and be no more than two-dimensional ciphers with a name.
Yet one of the briefest stories of the collection, the title story, must be worth the cover price alone for its success – if such an adjective is right for an almost unbearably tense piece on the planned euthanasia between a dying wife and her husband. The couple drive to a restaurant for a "Last Supper" meal, the prepared needle and necessary serum waiting in the fridge for their return. The only other character featured is a young woman described as, "a friend of the family." A friend of the family in a short skirt, the dying wife noting that her "long hair and freshness meant something, though she was not sure what."
In Give, we learn of a older man's obsession for a young poet lodging in the family home. Though the denouement is perhaps guessed, it is none the more jarring when the confrontation between the smitten husband is his suspecting wife occurs.
These are deceptive tales in that they read so briefly they can leave the reader, seemingly, by the turning of one page to the next. Until, I would argue, like any writing that moves, the fate of a Salter character pops into my conscious thoughts – which happened several times with this collection – from where they had been waiting in my subconscious.
Deceit and desire, intimacy and loneliness, above all the search for that special "other" to be in love with are sketched by Salter without sentimentality. No mean feat for any writer. This sharp, unflinching focus on relationships, on what can be our most complex and confusing engagement with life, is an intimate view into lovers and loving. In Bangkok, where a feisty ex makes an attempt to pull a man from his marriage, this focus reveals what may be years of the unspoken between a couple onto the page – and with Salter it may well be revealed on a single one at that.
Some readers may find the character sketches of upper middle class white men and their disloyal libidos repetitive, along with the descriptions of lithe young women that older male writers are often guilty of. However, others may find the recurring themes add weight to the overall collection. Happy endings are few, and many stories focus on past regrets suddenly wrenched into the present. But if the company of such crystalline prose is something to bring joy, the company of Salter's words, rather than his characters and their failures, then this collection offers its pleasures, too.
Last Night is the first of Salter's writing I have encountered, and from what I can gauge he has earlier work rated as superior to this collection. I look upon that unread writing with all the excitement of a deep sea diver about to haul a sunken treasure chest onto shore.
Listen to the title story from this collection being read on NewYorker.com.
Publication Date: 2005
First collection?: No
Author bio: James Salteris the author of the novels Solo Faces, Light Years, A Sport and a Pastime, The Arm of Flesh (revised as Cassada), and The Hunters; the memoirs Gods of Tin and Burning the Days; and the collection Dusk and Other Stories, which won the 1989 PEN/Faulkner Award.
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