We sometimes come late to treasures we should have found long ago. For me, it is the writing of James Salter, who has been publishing since 1957 and long had the reputation of a being a writers' writer, a master craftsman. Yet I've only just now picked him up.
Considering that Salter has been publishing for some 48 years (he is approaching 80), this is a major lapse in my reading, which I will now try to make up as quickly as I can.
Fortunately, Salter's new collection of short stories, "Last Night," has all of the trademark precision and melody he is known for; it is an elegant sampler from which we can guess about the rest.
Salter writes of a world that most of us know only from tabloid tattle or screen romance: the Brad and Jeniverse of heartsore privilege, in which no amount of success or money can ease the pangs of something missing: passion, depth of life, fullness of being. Salter writes of a world made famous by Sigmund Freud in his book "Civilization and its Discontents," in which to be miserable in the midst of plenty is normal.
True to this vision, Salter is untouched by much of modern life: worldly events like post-industrial collapse, 9/1 1, and Iraq, or literary fashions like minimalism, magic-realism, metafiction, post-modernism and all such other vapid and grandiose little -isms.
For Salter, the fundamental things apply as time goes by: the aching heart and the achingly perfect sentence, as if in agreement with Russian writer Isaac Babel's dictum that "no iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place."
In the Salter story, the table will be set, there will be wide doors with curved brass handles, deep armchairs, and Vollard prints on the walls. The bed linens will be turned back and someone will be in tears.
Salter, who has written about food ("Tasting Paris: An Intimate Guide") with his wife, Kay Eldredge, always sets the table with rich fare: caviar and vodka, cold soup and duck, vichyssoise and lobster, and something called Chicken Euripides (a tragic dish?), and in one story, no less than two bottles of a Chateau Cheval Blanc priced at $500 each. The Salter rule seems to be that the more bitter the tragedy, the grander the cru.
Such is the case in the title story, "Last Night." A couple in their middle years are dining out for their last supper, as the wife, Marit, is terminally ill and they have decided the husband, Walter, will euthanize her painlessly with a lethal dose of something or other. On the walls are photographs with silver frames, "the large books on Surrealism, landscape design, or country houses." Amid such finery Marit is dying, and their farewell dinner, accompanied by that Cheval Blanc, is an elegant and mournful send-off.
To add to the serpents in this garden, Walter and Marit have brought with them a family friend, an unmarried younger woman named Susannah who happens to be Walter's lover and is in bed with him that very night while Marit is upstairs dying. But the elixir fails and in the morning as a blissful Walter and Susannah have their morning coffee, Marit comes down the stairs saying, "Something went wrong." And to Walter, "You must have done it wrong." And to Susannah, "You're still here?"
Most of the stories work this way: a life buoyed up by routine and duplicity that suddenly collapses after some revelation of deceit. In other stories, a married woman is touched sexually by a drunken poet at a party and shatters her own life as a result ("My Lord, You").
A husband suddenly reveals himself to his wife by saying casually at a dinner party that adultery "happens every day," in effect calling an end to a fragile marriage ("Comet"). A young businessman and apprentice swine, having married into levels of delirious privilege, throws it all away by taking on a young lover and loaning her his wife's platinum earrings, which are spotted on her by the wife's father ("Platinum").
Why? Of course, without failure there is no story. What reader is interested in happy families? Aren't they all alike? But then Salter is also saying, this is how we live, by deceptions, betrayals and mistakes, by blunders and misadventures. "Reality comes in blows," says the hero in a Saul Bellow novel, and so it does. Wars are fought by mistake; corporations go belly-up by accident; chads hang uncounted from ballots.
If I can read James Salter's mind here, I don't think we can read his stories as testimony to consumer-class moral rot. This isn't sermonizing or class warfare, just a bemused look at how we pull the rug out from under ourselves day after day because we want to. Which is why Salter is such a paradox to read.
On the one hand, you have these pages of pliant and mellifluous prose, as fine and as sumptuous as a seven-course French dinner, hinting at life as comely as those meals. And then you have his characters in all their splendid shambles, reminding you of the pig that gave up its life for your Apricot Pork Medallions.
By James Salter
Knopf, 132 pages, $20
Mark Shechner is a frequent News book reviewer.