Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


Last Night by James Salter








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The ten stories of James Salter’s new collection, Last Night, beg to be absorbed slowly, and then yearn to be re-read and savored. Salter’s masterful prose describes characters both efficiently and beautifully. While he introduces us to character we might not recognize in our own lives, we somehow recognize them, believe they are real, and come to understand their behavior. Here’s an excerpt, all of the story titled, “Give,” pp. 60-68:


In the morningit was my wife’s birthday, her thirty-first—we slept a little late, and I was at the window looking down at Des in a bathrobe with his pale hair awry and a bam­boo stick in his hand. He was deflecting and sometimes with a flourish making a lunge. Billy, who was six then, was hop­ping around in front of him. I could hear his shrieks of joy. Anna came up beside me.

What are they doing now?

I can’t tell. Billy is waving something over his head.

I think it’s a flyswatter, she said, disbelieving.

She was just thirty-one, the age when women are past fool­ishness though not unfeeling.

Look at him, she said. Don’t you just love him?

The grass was brown from summer and they were dancing around on it. Des was barefoot, I noticed. It was early for him to be up. He often slept until noon and then managed to slip gracefully into the rhythm of the household. That was his tal­ent, to live as he liked, almost without concern, to live as if he would reach the desired end one way or another and not be bothered by whatever came between. It included being committed several times, once for wandering out on Moore Street naked. None of the psychiatrists had any idea who he was. None of them had ever read a damned thing, he said. Some of the patients had.

He was a poet, of course. He even looked like a poet, intel­ligent, lank. He’d won the Yale prize when he was twenty-five and went on from there. When you pictured him, it was wearing a gray herringbone jacket, khaki pants, and for some reason sandals. Doesn’t fit together, but a lot of things about him were like that. Born in Galveston, ROTC in college, and even married while an undergraduate, although what became of that wife he never clearly explained. His real life came after that, and he had lived it ever since, teaching sometimes in community classes, travelling to Greece and Morocco, living there for a period, having a breakdown, and through it all writing the poem that had made his name. I read the poem, a third of it anyway, standing stunned in a bookshop in the Village. I remember the afternoon, cloudy and quiet, and I remember, too, almost leaving myself, the person I was, the ordinary way I felt about things, my per­ception of—there’s no other word for it—the depth of life, and above all the thrill of successive lines. The poem was an aria, jagged and unending. Its tone was what set it apart— written as if from the shades. There lay the delta, there the burning arms. . . was the way it began, and immediately I felt it was not about rivers uncoiling but about desire. It revealed itself only slowly, like some kind of dream, the light fluttering on the fronds, with names and nouns, Naples, worn benches, Luxor and the kings, Salonika, small waves fall­ing on the stones. There was repetition, even refrain. Lines that seemed unconnected gradually became part of a confes­sion that had at its center rooms in the burning heat of August where something has taken place, clearly sexual, but it is also the vacant streets of rural Texas, roads, forgotten friends, the slap of hands on rifle slings and forked pennants limp at parades. There are condoms, sun-faded cars, soiled menus with misspellings, a kind of pyre on which he had laid his life. That was why he seemed so pure—he had given all. Everyone lies about their lives, but he had not lied about his. He had made of it a noble lament, through it always running this thing you have had, that you will always have, but can never have. There stood Erechtheus, polished limbs and yea Yes. . . come to me, Hellas, I long for your touch.

I had met him at a party and only managed to say, I read your beautiful poem. He was unexpectedly open in a way that impressed me and straightforward in a way that was unflinching. In talking, he mentioned the title of a book or two and referred to some things he assumed I would, of course, know, and he was witty, all of that but something more; his language invited me to be joyous, to speak as the gods—I use the plural because it’s hard to think of him as obedient to a single god—had intended. We were always speaking of things that it turned out, oddly enough, both of us knew about although he knew more. Lafcadio Hearn, yes, of course he knew who that was and even the name of the Japanese widow he married and the town they lived in, though he had never been to Japan himself. Arletty, Nestor Almen­dros, Jacques Brel, The Lawrenceville Stories, the cordon sanitaire, everything including his real interest, jazz, to which I only weakly responded. The Answer Man, Billy Cannon, the Hellespont, Stendhal on love, it was as if we had sat in the same classes and gone to the same cities. And there was Billy, swatting at his legs.

Billy loved him, he was almost a pal. He had an infectious laugh and was always ready to play. During the times he stayed with us, he made ships out of sofa cushions and swords and shields from whatever was in the garage. When he owned his car, the engine of which would cut out every so often, he claimed that turning the radio on and off would fix it, the cir­cuits had been miswired or something. Billy was in charge of the radio.

Oh, oh, Des would say, there it goes. Radio!

And Billy, with huge pleasure, would turn the radio on and off, on and off. How to explain why this worked? It was the power of a poet or maybe even a trick.

On Anna’s birthday, at about noon a beautiful arrange­ment of flowers, lilies and yellow roses, was delivered. They were from him. That evening we had dinner with some friends at the Red Bar, always noisy but the table was in the small room past the bar. I hadn’t ordered a birthday cake because we were going to have one back at the house, a rum cake, her favorite. Billy sat in her lap as she put her rings, one after another, carefully over separate candles, each ring for a wish.

Will you help me blow them out? she said to Billy, her face close to his hair.

Too many, he said.

Oh, God, you really know how to hurt a woman.

Go ahead, Des told him. If you don’t have enough breath, I’ll catch it and send it back.

How do you do that?

I can do it. Haven’t you heard of someone catching their breath?

They’re burning down, Anna said. Come on, one, two, three!

The two of them blew them out. Billy wanted to know what her wishes had been, but she wouldn’t tell.

We ate the cake, just the four of us, and I gave her the pres­ent I knew she would love. It was a wristwatch, very thin and square with Roman numerals and a small blue stone, I think tourmaline, embedded in the stem. There are not many things more beautiful than a watch lying new in its case.

Oh, Jack! she said. It’s gorgeous!

She showed it to Billy and then to Des.

Where did you get it? Then, looking, Cartier, she said.


I love it.

Beatrice Hage, a woman we knew, had one like it that she had inherited from her mother. It had an elegance that defied the years and demands of fashion.

It was easy to find things she would like. Our taste was the same, it had been from the first. It would be impossible to live with someone otherwise. I’ve always thought it was the most important single thing, though people may not realize it. Perhaps it’s transmitted to them in the way someone dresses or, for that matter, undresses, but taste is a thing no one is born with, it’s learned, and at a certain point it can’t be altered. We sometimes talked about that, what could and couldn’t be altered. People were always saying something had completely changed them, some experience or book or man, but if you knew how they had been before, nothing much really had changed. When you found someone who was tremendously appealing but not quite perfect, you might believe you could change them after marriage, not every­thing, just a few things, but in truth the most you could expect was to change perhaps one thing and even that would eventu­ally go back to what it had been.

The small things that could be overlooked at first but in time became annoying, we had a way of handling, of getting the pebble out of the shoe, so to speak. It was called a give, and it was agreed that it would last. The phrase that was over­used, an eating habit, even a piece of favorite clothing, a give was a request to abandon it. You couldn’t ask for something, only to stop something. The wide skirt of the bathroom sink was always wiped dry because of a give. Anna’s little finger no longer extended when she drank from a cup. There might be more than one thing you would like to ask, and there was sometimes difficulty in choosing, but there was the satisfac­tion of knowing that once a year, without causing resentment, you would be able to ask your husband or wife to stop this one thing.

Des was downstairs when we put Billy to bed. I was in the hail when Anna came out holding her finger to her lips and having turned off the light.

Is he asleep?

— Yes.

Well, happy birthday, I said.

— Yes.

There was something odd in the way she said it. She stood there, her long neck and blond hair.

What is it, darling?

She said nothing for a moment. Then she said,

I want a give.

All right, I said.

I don’t know why, I felt nervous.

What would you like?

I want you to stop it with Des, she said.

Stop it? Stop what?

My heart was skipping.

Stop the sex, she said.

I knew she was going to say it. I had hoped something else, and the words were like a thick curtain tumbling down or a plate smashing on the floor.

I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Her face was hard,

Yes, you do. You know exactly what I’m talking about.

Darling, you’re mistaken. There’s nothing going on with Des. He’s a friend, he’s my closest friend.

The tears began to run down her face.

Don’t, I said. Please. Don’t cry. You’re wrong.

I have to cry, she said, her voice unsteady. Anyone would cry. You have to do it. You have to stop. We promised one another.

Oh, God, you’re imagining this.

Please, she begged, don’t. Please, please, don’t.

She was wiping her cheeks as if to make herself again presentable.

You have to do what we promised, she said. You have to give.

There are things you cannot give, that would simply crush your heart. It was half of life she was asking for, him slipping off his watch, holding him, having him in your possession, in indescribable happiness, in love with you. Nothing else could be like that. There was an apartment on 12th Street that we were able to use, the garden behind it, the dazzling chords of Petroushka—the record happened to be there and we used to play it—chords that would always, as long as I lived, bring me back to it, his pliancy and slow smile.

I’m not doing anything with Des, I said. I swear to you.

You swear to me.

— Yes.

And I’m supposed to believe you.

I swear to you.

She looked away.

All right, she said at last.

A great joy filled me. Then she said,

All right. But he has to leave. For good. If you want me to believe you, that’s what it takes.


No, that’s the proof.

How can I tell him to leave? What’s the reason?

Make up something. I don’t care.



In the morning he got up late and was in the kitchen, the smoothness of sleep still on him. Anna had gone off. My hands were trembling.

Good morning, he said with a smile.

Good morning.

I couldn’t bring myself to it. All I could say was,


— Yes?

I don’t know what to say.

About what?

Us. It’s over.

He seemed not to understand.

What’s over?

Everything. I feel like I’m coming apart inside.

Ah, he said in a soft way. I see. Maybe I see. What happened?

It’s just that you can’t stay.

Anna, he guessed.

— Yes.

She knows.

— Yes. I don’t know what to do.

Could I talk to her, do you think?

It wouldn’t do any good. Believe me.

But we’ve always gotten along. What difference does it make? Let me talk to her.

She doesn’t want to, I lied.

When did all this happen?

Last night. Don’t ask me how it came about. I don’t know.

He sighed. He said something I didn’t get. All I could hear was my own heart beating. He left later that day.

I felt the injustice for a longtime. He’d brought only plea­sure to us, and if to me particularly, that didn’t diminish it. I had some photographs that I kept in a certain place, and of course I had the poems. I followed him from afar, the way a woman does a man she was never able to marry. The glitter­ing blue water slid past as he made his way between the islands. There was Ios, white in the haze, where the dust of Homer lay, they said.


Salter has a way of surprising readers, as in the above story, and then tying all the pieces together clearly. Last Night is a finely written collection of stories.


Steve Hopkins, January 25, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the February 2006 issue of Executive Times


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