Sunday, April 21, 2013

James Salter: Polishing Words




GRANTED, Last Night, is the first book of James Salter’s I've ever read, and maybe that’s why I feel compelled to say that I've never seen anything like this in my life, but I’m pretty sure Salter might be the greatest writer who ever dabbled in the alphabet.
            No seriously.
            Just listen to this:
            “They ate dinner in silence.  Her husband did not look at her.  Her face annoyed him, he did not know why.  She could be good-looking but there were times when she was not.  Her face was like a series of photographs, some of which ought to have been thrown away.  Tonight was like that” (Salter 44).



            Many of Salter’s critics say that, although the New York born writer may be a great stylist, that is not an important writer, one that will have the lasting impact on his society that did, say, Hemingway.  But I think that the mark of an important writer is how much insight into the human condition one can provide.  And I think that style is merely a meter by which to measure how well that message is put across.  It’s the equivalent of saying, okay, this person can sing like a bird.  Okay, you listen to them sing and you get the story behind the song, if there is one, because the instrument that was used to communicate is beautiful and effective.  It’s the same thing with Salter.  His sentences are so beautiful and wonderfully designed, polished, as he says, like rare gems, each one, that they communicate, without any sign of fat or excess verbage, exactly the same feeling you might have had at one time in your life, or someone you might know.
            And tension, don’t even talk to be about tension with this guy.
            In the first story of this collection, Salter puts the vice grips on real slow and then just keeps twisting.  Here we have a couple in the story, “Comet,” who has gotten married, but there are hints in the first opening paragraphs that things are slightly off center.  She wore a white dress, but Salter doesn’t just leave it at that, no, instead, he takes that opportunity to start planting seeds and building character.  “It had been a while since Adele had married and she wore white: white pumps with low heels, a long white skirt that clung to her hips, a filmy blouse with a white bra underneath, and around her neck a string of freshwater pearls” (3).  What’s happening here is that seed of tension is being placed, very gently by a really talented writer.  This isn’t just an ordinary marriage.  This is a second marriage and then later we get even more hints of the tension already building and the tension to come. 
“Behind her as best man, somewhat oblivious, her young son was standing, and           pinned to her panties as something borrowed was a small silver disc, actually a St. Christopher medal her father had worn in the war; she had several times rolled down the waistband of her skirt to show it to people” (3).
Why is this lady essentially showing her panties to people during her wedding?  It’s an unsettling image for me, personally.  And this continues to build throughout the story with the woman’s story of her ex-husband, the one that Philip is forced to endure time and again, that has, itself, some unsettling details.
All of this tension suggests one thing, and it’s a theme I see throughout the collection – that of longing and regret.

Another good example of regret, particularly, comes in the short story, “My Lord You,” which depicts a woman who is unhappy with her current life/ husband and sees the possibility of something new and exciting in this poet character.  The quote at the beginning of this essay is from that story and illustrates the indifference her husband has toward her.  There are some really painful moments earlier in that story where we see that the husband makes little or no effort to thwart, or at least discuss, some of his wife’s longing and perhaps even lust for this poet character, Brennan, who pretty much stains not only the opening scene but the remainder of the story.  From the start, we know that he is going to be a driving force for throwing a wrench into the fabric of these people’s lives.
“There were crumpled napkins on the table, wine-glasses still with dark remnant in them, coffee stains, and plates with bits of hardened Brie.  Beyond the bluish windows the gardens lay motionless beneath the birdsong of summer morning.  Daylight had come.  It had been a success except for one thing: Brennan” (27).
I can’t help but cite Salter in long form, he’s just too good.  Even writing his sentences here to cite myself for reference from his work nearly makes my fingers tingle at the very tips, magic somehow to even have the great honor of forming those common letters into the same passage that he himself wrote.


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