The short story is perhaps the most peculiarly American of all the literary forms, one that seemingly sprang into existence not long after the United States’ inception. Most literary historians credit Edgar Allan Poe with creation of the form in the 1840’s, and it proved to be the ideal vehicle for miniaturists who wished to relate a brief tale with a limited number of characters for the growing periodical market. Such is the flexibility of the form that it can accommodate works as diverse as Poe’s tales of horror or the ironic humor of O. Henry. A common denominator in most short fiction, both past and present, is that it is primarily an entertainment medium for the masses. In the limited space of a few pages, a writer may tease with humor and irony, pummel the reader with the violence of his or her characters, or gently reach a moment of insightbut the writer’s chief goal is to leave the reader wanting more. This is somewhat problematic in the career of James Salter, an author who seems to be far more dedicated to the quality of his art than in increasing his readership and thus his income. While someone such as Richard Ford will delight his readers with his tales of infidelity in upper-middle-class America, Salter deals with the same theme and the same milieu but in more muted tones. This is evident in Last Night, a brief compilation of ten stories, many of which were previously published in magazines.
The opening work in the collection, “Comet,” is a representative example of Salter’s skill in character development and use of language. The story concerns Philip and Adele Ardet, middle-aged survivors of previous relationships who have apparently found happiness in their marriage to each other. Any good storyteller can give a satisfactory account of a relationship that is destined for dissolution, and in a short story the source of the conflict is often an act of infidelity. Salter, on the other hand, takes a far more subtle approach, using Adele’s drunken revelation of her husband’s affair in his first marriage as the turning point in the story. Philip’s growing disenchantment is accentuated and anticipated by the seasonal imagery, where the commencement of their marriage on a June day is followed by Adele’s outburst at an autumn dinner party. Though executed with great subtlety, Salter’s message is clear: The Ardets’ marriagefollowing the same cycle as their prior relationshipsis strained and probably destined to end.
Such is Salter’s skill that even the title suggests the eventual outcome of their marriage. The comet that appears on the evening of the fateful dinner party is a kind of heavenly flare, one that will blaze in its close approach to the sun and then quickly fade from view. On a deeper level, the cometwhose cyclical appearance mirrors that of the seasonssymbolizes the flash and expiration of the Ardets’ once sexually charged relationship. What makes this tale of disenchantment so absorbing is Salter’s efficacious use of language, something that has endeared him to his fellow authors as a kind of writer’s writer. Rather than simply state that Philip loved his wife on their wedding day, Salter declares: “He could have licked her palms like a calf does salt.” This superb simile suggests that Philip’s desire for his wife is mere animal appetite, one that will cease once it has been satisfied.
One of the recurring themes in Salter’s fiction is sexual longing, especially the kind of desire that takes its own perverse course, complicating his characters’ lives as surely as it enriches his fiction. This compulsion can range from Walter Such’s blatant unfaithfulness to his dying wife in the title story, “Last Night,” to the fantasies of Ardis, the troubled young wife in “My Lord You.” Michael Brennen, the object of Ardis’s weirdly deflected desires, is a poet whose sole appearance in the story consists of a drunken pass at Ardis at a dinner party. Although she is initially offended by his advances, she is clearly fascinated by this man and spends the rest of the story trying to meet him again.
Why would this attractive, upper-middle-class Long Island wife risk her comfortable existence for a man who pawed her breasts without a trace of compunction? As in “Comet,” Salter’s use of language provides a clue to Ardis’s behavior. Unlike the respectable Ardis, Brennan’s life as a poet enables him freely to satiate his animal appetites with impunity. It is an aspect of human behavior that Sigmund Freud characterized as...
(The entire section is 1853 words.)