Sunday, January 15, 2006

Short Story Sunday 1: "Last Night" by James Salter

Dan Mueller and Julie Shigekuni, two of my workshop teachers, recommended James Salter to me after reading one of my stories, "Splinter." Dan thought his newest collection was the best purchase for me, so I sent away for Last Night. The title story is the last in the collection. In it Walter and his wife, Marit have agreed to assisted suicide rather than have her suffer a prolonged illness. Their friend, Susanna joins them as support for Walter.

This is one of the most startling stories I've read, and frankly, along with next week's entry, it's in my top five favorites.

Dan often reminds his students that stories should have plots that are surprising and inevitable--both are necessary for a satisfying reading experience. I sometimes struggle with that, unsure if what I consider surprising will also seem inevitable. Salter achieves that combination. His writing is uber confident, and while the story does not lack in richness of detail, it is a spare story, told with a cool distance...but I don't feel distant from the characters or the story.

That spareness is why Dan and Julie sent me to Salter. I'm trying to get to that in my own writing. I don't want to underwrite, but I'm intrigued by seeing how little do I need? How much is there without piling it on?

Here's a line describing Marit:

"She was almost a different woman from the one to whom he had made a solemn promise to help when the time came" (123).

And another one, from close to Marit's pov:

"The rest was a long nove so like your life; you were going through it without thinking and then one morning it ended: there were bloodstains" (122).

The dipping in and out of characters is another thing to admire about the story. We're close to all three of the characters at different times. And this is a story in which that's beneficial.

2 comments:

The Lizard Queen said...

Dan recommended that one to me, too, and I've been meaning to read it, but... I agree that we need to read more short stories. Once we move, I'm subscribing to the New Yorker with my birthday money!!

Beverly said...

I meant to tell you...Samantha Hunt had a story in a recent issue. I saved it for you!!