James Salter’s “Last Night” was first published in the New Yorker magazine in November 2002; it was reprinted in 2005 as the final story in a collection of the same name. Salter has been widely recognized for his treatment of the physical and spiritual conditions of people living in a culture that is increasingly adrift of traditional standards of faith, personal integrity, and civil behavior. Within the condensed recounting of the presumed last night of one woman’s life, Salter manages to explore a number of volatile social issues, including the legalities and ethics of assisted suicide, the disintegration of a marriage under the pressures of an extramarital affair, and the general malaise of a certain kind of culture. Walter Such is a representative of masculinity and integrity for the new world of the late twentieth century, a man notable for his frayed moral fiber and for the double betrayal of the one woman he claims to have loved.
“Last Night” is a compact story that focuses on the presumed last night of Marit Such, who is dying from metastasized uterine cancer. Rather than suffer a slow and debilitating death, Marit solicits the assistance of her husband, Walter, in taking her life by an overdose of her prescription painkiller. As Marit arranges herself and her affairs in preparation for her last night, she invites a young and beautiful family friend, Susanna, to join the couple for Marit’s “farewell dinner” and to support Walter as he struggles to deal with the repercussions of the events of the evening.
As Marit organizes her personal possessions, she thinks often about the changes in her body and about how she must look to others as the cancer strips away her physical vitality and her forceful spirit. She laments quietly to her husband that having “no energy” is “the most terrible part” of her condition. “It’s gone,” she explains. “It doesn’t come back,” and she is no longer able “to get up and walk around.” In these moments, too, she drifts gently into memories of being a girl, of the home that she has built with Walter, and of the time before the cancer.
Knowing that she has a syringe and vial of morphine sitting securely in the refrigerator, Marit turns her attention to dinner and conversation with the twenty-nine-year-old Susanna. Interrupted only momentarily when they change rooms in the hotel restaurant in order to avoid a “talkative couple” whom Walter and Marit know, the dinner is a quiet affair highlighted by two bottles of very expensive wine. Softening the emotions of the evening, the wine brings to Marit’s spirit a gentle melancholy, a mood that continues to hold her during the car ride home.
Upon the group’s return from dinner, Walter becomes increasingly nervous as he considers again his role in the plan that is drawing ominously nearer. With a translator’s eye for subtleties and minutiae, he imagines, though “trie[s] not to dwell on,” the details of the arrangement: how the refrigerator light will come on when the door is opened, the angle of the stainless-steel point of the syringe, and the vein into which he will insert the point. Breaking Walter’s momentary reverie, Marit recalls her own mother’s final stories about the various sexual affairs that had shocked the previous generation. Almost abruptly, her storytelling ends, and she declares...