Last Night (2002)

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Author: James Salter
Publisher: Vintage press

© Copyright Vintage press

© Copyright Vintage press

Hearts are broken all the time, but two perfect examples of the slow motion train crash have topped my list for years. I recommended the first in this month’s contributor picks as a prime example of an oeuvre that left me utterly wrecked: the 2003 novel What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt. In fact, I think I may have used the same metaphor in my opening sentence. If I could have made a second suggestion, though, it would surely have been James Salter’s “Last Night”, originally published in a 2002 issue of The New Yorker and now collected with other stories from the same author.

The short story is, I find, more accessible than Hustvedt’s What I Loved and all the more haunting for its brevity. You can actually find it online, for free no less, read and discussed by Thomas Maguane on The New Yorker’s fiction podcast. At about thirty-three minutes, really twenty provided you leave out the surrounding discussion, this rendition of “Last Night” is well worth a listen if you can’t track down the text itself.

Anyway, I stumbled on James Salter in the early nineties and lost no time in patting myself on the back when critics started calling him “a writer’s writer”. He’s contemporaneous to my grandfather, and I can’t help but read him through this lens, knowing the history both have lived through. I can’t help but be jealous of Salter, who was born in the nineteen-twenties, came of age at a time of war, and spent his adult life on the fringes of Hollywood before retiring to the country and writing the books no one had written for him to read.

Salter’s stories are short and crisp, filled with those perfect details that only someone who never rushes from a room can observe and distill. Take, for example, the narrative in “Last Night”, which, as Maguane points out, reads like horror fiction. The protagonist, with his outlandish fetish for green fountain pens, is made immediately dislikable, but no other carefully placed detail tips the reader toward antipathy until later, when the story unfurls and we begin to learn more and more.

Now, heartbreak, to position myself, is less the loss of love and more the choices we make that foul what may have lead to happiness, had we been wiser. It’s about consequence and the realisation of when and where things may have derailed. There’s nothing to say things would have been better, and there’s nothing to stop an accident once it’s set in motion, but still a horrible, empty gnawing leaves us cold. “Last Night” captures all of that.

Having had friends who’ve worked as engineers in aerospace, I’ve been told over and over that the most dangerous part of flying lies in the takeoff. When it comes to such matters, I have no doubt Salter would have known best, seeing as he served as a fighter pilot during the Korean War. Interestingly, his prose seems to argue a different truth: really, no matter what the experts tell us, it’s how we go down that tears us apart.

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