After devouring his masterpiece Light Years so greedily, I was bound to seek out more James Salter soon. Picador have recently reissued his memoir, Burning the Days, and A Sport and a Pastime, but it was to his latest collection of short stories, Last Night, that I turned. The mediocre cover, almost an article of faith for Picador paperbacks, is this time excused by the fact that the blurry photograph was taken by the author.
And as with A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years, the subject here is women and men. And unsurprisingly for a writer who at a recent public appearance said (quoting Irwin Shaw), “The great engines of the world do not run on fidelity,” the relationships in these stories are rarely straightforward. Rarely is this more succinctly expressed than in the opening story, “Comet,” where Salter, having opened with a simple, “Philip married Adele on a day in June,” then slips in, almost as an aside:
They were married in her house, the one she’d gotten in the divorce
and immediately the character has a rich background that goes some way to explaining her subsequent behaviour.
But this minimalist expression is what Salter excels at in this collection (in comparison with the metaphor rich, thickly luminous prose of Light Years). Countless times he sums up a personality in a handful of words:
There was not much more to her than met the eye
– a process which reaches its apotheosis in the story “Eyes of the Stars,” which contains the most densely packed two word phrase since Humbert Humbert explained his mother’s death in Lolita (“picnic, lightning”). This is when the central character sets up with a man described, perfectly and harrowingly, as a “detoured novelist.” Suddenly we know everything we need to about him.
But parts of the collection – ten stories averaging a dozen pages each – can seem a little slight, or tend towards tricksiness (as in the payoff in “Such Fun”). The final story, the title piece of the collection, is perhaps the best, both affecting and surprising. Salter, 82, who dreamed when younger of “making something lasting” from “the great heap of days,” says he has another novel on the way – “it’s going to be terrific. Maybe. It could be” – but whether or not we see it, he’s proved his lasting power well enough already.