Dusk, and Other Stories
James Salter has written novels that explore the dark interior of modern consciousness. Broken hopes, dashed dreams, the very taste of failure are all at the center of his art. Nevertheless, he is not a singer of dirges. The lucidity of his style, the avoidance of even a whisper of sentimentality, the sureness of his voice all lend a brilliant surface to his work. The confidence of his writing exudes a joy of its own, and this joy seems to provide sustenance to his mournful subjects. His defeated people take on the illumination of art. Even when they themselves come only to partial self-awareness, the reader receives the impression that their state stands revealed. In one story in Dusk and Other Stories, an alcoholic chases a thing of beauty into the night; unlike the pursuer in John Keats’s famous poem, however, he must confront the terror of a nameless shadow. His wife is there to comfort him, but Salter’s haunting description of the man’s delusion is there to liberate the reader: “The more intently he listened, the more elusive it was.” What is “elusive” to Eddie Fenn becomes the substance of what Salter manages to capture for the perceptive reader.
Nevertheless, Salter does not make things easy for the reader: Exposition seems fragmented. The reader does not always know what to do with the richly detailed but abrupt sentences which are tossed about with such assurance and yet are disconcertingly alinear, a spate of stones scattered in a seemingly irregular pattern. Slowly everything coheres. Understatement, terse dialogue, and muted climax all interlock in the effect traditionally associated with the short story.
In “Twenty Minutes,” the reader finds himself pitying, with a strange and perplexing pity, a wealthy, easygoing woman whose life is slowly snuffed out in a riding accident. The horse is indifferent, as is the landscape. Only the reader is involved. “The Cinema” is a dazzling tour de force, a parody of a Fellini film in its plenitude of characters and moods, which captures the cynicism and glitter of international film production. At the end of the story, the reader is tricked into an embarrassingly pleasurable, satiated voyeurism.
“Via Negativa” appeals to the reader’s wicked delight in the pain of others, what the Germans called Schadenfreude. Nile, a second-rate writer who takes excessive pride in the modesty of his reputation, calls on his mistress. He brags of his failure and suggests that successful writers fear him because of his obscurity. The implication is that he is too good to be as successful as they are, that they have sold out while he remains pure. Salter immolates him in his pride-in-failure by rendering him a cuckold. Jeanine, the mistress, leaves him in her apartment to attend a party, where she takes up with another writer who is flagrantly successful and extravagantly selfless: “Generosity purifies.” As Jeanine is swept up by her new lover’s power, Nile is reduced to the...
(The entire section is 1223 words.)