Generally, I like short stories.
More than that, I like short stories that enter and exit character’s lives suddenly, and I could read and enjoy work that’s nothing but endless descriptions of people falling in, falling out of and stumbling through love.
So, that I couldn’t embrace James Salter’s Last Night might be telling.
Salter’s slim collection of short stories tends to visit its characters at the point where love starts to turn to pain. That should yield endless raw material for beautiful, emotionally wrought prose, but Salter’s writing feels chilly and, frankly, pretty dull.
I just couldn’t understand why stories about such potentially affecting material could be so bloodless. It feels like nothing is stirring in Salter’s work. It’s oddly antiseptic and very hard to attach to.
It doesn’t help that most of Salter’s characters are oh-so-literary. By that, I mean there isn’t a single relatable, realistic person inhabiting Last Night. Everyone, absolutely everyone, can recite Russian or is a frustrated poet or a something like that. These are stiff, bourgeois intellectuals, and meeting them isn’t all that interesting.
On a more personal note, the characters in Last Night didn’t really generate a lot of empathy within me. In most cases, I felt like their circumstances were of their own making. That can be powerful when the character is really a mess, because it activates a sense of wanting to save them, but that didn’t happen here. Look, lady, I am sorry your professor of a husband is cold toward you, but quit breaking into people’s houses and stop anthropomorphizing that dog following you ready (“My Lord You”). Tell me about your feelings, but really, there are better (and more entertaining) ways of dealing with them.
To me, Last Night felt like something written for the rarified circle of The New Yorker and The Paris Review critics. I wish I had left it to them to coo and fuss over, because it seems only the can appreciate it.