James Salter is a quietly legendary figure in American literature, almost an insider secret for those whose stock in trade is the use of words. One has the impression that he is read and admired almost exclusively by other writers. This, his latest book, sees him returning to the form of short stories, his first collection published since the PEN/ Faulkner award winning Dusk and other stories in 1989. Salter has long been regarded a master of sparse, measured and bewilderingly beautiful prose. He can, as was once said, break your heart with a sentence. In interviews, Salter has spoken about the exactitude with which he writes - playing sentences over and over, measuring them against a rigorous internal standard. Yet it is always prose full of immediacy, the time spent choosing fitting words repays the effort not with a weightiness but instead with a clear lightness of touch.
Salter is not the most prolific of writers - having written for short of a half century he has produced only five novels, a collection of short stories and his autobiography (there have also been film scripts). The publication of a new work is something to be greeted with excitement, albeit a rather quiet excitement. It is a shame, then, that Last Night should disappoint.
The stories in Last Night feature characters that are almost exclusively upper middle class, white, East coast Americans. Salter is trying to tell us something about them, and about himself as a part of them. They are intelligent, well schooled, always cultured and knowing. Lives are polite, correct, appearances are important. The marriages portrayed are long standing but never happy - they are artefacts of convention, the romance in them long suffocated. There is the constant sense that lives could, or should, have been lived differently but never were. Each protagonist is a failure in his or her own light - they were never brave enough. Core to each story is impropriety, adultery. Each protagonist is either narratively engaged in adultery or guiltlessly holding onto memories of fleeting, illicit romances they once had. We are shown over and over again that it is only in those moments that the protagonists ever touch upon something transcendent, something bigger and infinitely more real than the constricting social constructions of their daily lives. This impropriety is shown to be a psychological crutch, grasped with both hands - the protagonists are never oblivious to the implications and the damage done, but are found instead to be passive to it.
The younger characters are almost ciphers. They are as skittish and fickle as they are tempting and engaged. It is hard to tell if this is how Salter genuinely perceives young people or if instead we are seeing them only through the prismic distortions of the older protagonist's need of them. They promise much but are always by the end of the story bored, moving on, leaving quietly broken protagonists in their wake.
Salter is a bleak writer, perhaps very truthful, or perhaps instead a writer willing a universality to his own predicament. Perhaps by creating characters that act and think like him, by creating a universal law stating that all men in middle age are unhappy and crave impropriety, he excuses or comforts himself. Either way, this is not new territory for Salter - all of his books mine similar seams. Yet here, as distinct from earlier books, there exists a sense of fatigue, of fatigue in the quality of prose. Salter at his poorest is still a match for any writer in the English language, however there are moments in his previous works that leave one breathless with wonder at his talent. In earlier books, most notably A Sport and a Pastime, and Light Years, there were perhaps two or three passages in each chapter that could stand out as some of the loveliest use of words or choice of metaphor in the English language. Here, the tone is inescapably Salter's and the cadence as precise as ever, but the writing seems to lack the rigour that we look to him for. Less energy has gone into this work. As a sculptor of prose the reader has the impression that Salter holds the chisel less assuredly in his old age.
Last night differs from Dusk and other stories, not just in that it is less well written, but also in that it is more explicit, more obvious. The stories in Dusk end ambiguously, strangely sometimes. The reader is left with a sense of having been somewhere, of having been privy to a mind that won't let up all of its secrets, its workings. The first story in Dusk, Am Strande von Tanger, ends: 'Her father has three secretaries. Hamburg is close to the sea.' The Cinema ends: 'His ecstasy was beyond knowing. The roofs of the great cathedrals shone in the winter air.'
Yet taking as an example, Last Night's My Lord You (probably the best and most poignant of the stories) which ends: 'probably he was forgotten, but not by her.' It may seem a petty difference and some may applaud the simplicity of such an ending but its resonance is limited by it. The sentiment of the piece is tied up, neatly packaged (she won't forget him), ultimately there is nothing to dwell on. Now, rather than let his protagonists' feelings become known to us through crafted observation, Salter just tells us. Other stories in the collection begin and end in a similar fashion. The prose, shorn of the use of metaphor for resonance, becomes rather more a collected statement of facts about people's lives. This is very much unlike Salter whose Light Years (his greatest work) he described as being like a still life - we the reader are to watch, not be directly privy to the lives portrayed. Last Night is filled with statements directly explaining protagonists' inner thoughts, and by doing this Salter betrays his lack of energy.
For those looking to be introduced to James Salter, look instead to A Sport and a Pastime or Light Years - they are better written, more potent with a love of words. For those that are fans already, by all means add the book to your collection, but place it on the shelf next to his lesser works like The Hunters, or Solo Faces. You might as well place it on a harder to reach shelf for it is unlikely you will reach for it as often as his greatest works - it is not a book that repays returning to time and again.
It is an extraordinary thing to criticise a very good book for not being mesmerising, yet Salter is held in my very highest esteem because of what he is capable of. In this collection there are only a few glimpses of his brilliance and the consequence is that a very bleak book finally has little to lighten it, to make it an unequivocally human endeavour.