Last Night. By James Salter

Penetrating tales about life from an American master of fiction
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"Aplomb" is a favourite word of James Salter's. He praises Virginia Woolf for hers, adds it to the physical glories of a busy mistress, and in Nedra Berland, heroine of his novel Light Years, wrote a study of it.

Salter is the Jewish-American fighter pilot and film writer/maker, transformed in mid-life into a master of ecstatic prose fiction and non-fiction. Literary canons are risible; however, he has written three books that everyone should read before they die: A Sport and a Pastime (1967), Light Years (1975) and his recollections, Burning the Days (1996).

Death and the life achieved against it is Salter's obsession. As he is a fighter with more than 100 missions over Korea in the 1950s, you might expect as much. Similarly, hard-earned experience helped make Solo Faces a brilliantly authentic portrait of mountaineering. Both pursuits promise much and demand absolutely everything.

Salter's world, most obviously the idyll memorialised in Light Years, may appear exclusive but is shaped by "lives achieved in agony", by gamblers who have lost, by a peculiar dissidence. All this is exemplified in his new collection of ten short stories written since the early 1990s. From the first, Salter was fully present in his stories, which have all the penetrating perspective of his novels. At least half the stories in Dusk, his previous collection, are milestones of the form. Last Night opens with Philip and Adele's marriage, their fifth - jointly. Around a Salteresque dinner table, Philip resists the consensual reaction to news of infidelity. Then, while Adele guts her husband's failed marriages, he holds to their joys; he'd do it all again. Outside, Adele finds him staring at a comet: "It won't be there tomorrow. One time only." She turns away, shrinking as she recrosses the lawn "reaching first the aura, then the brightness, then tripping on the kitchen steps."

In "Platinum", we encounter the downside of aplomb, when Brian and his powerful father-in-law find themselves sharing the "forbidden happiness" of busy Pamela. In "Bangkok", a book dealer shucks off a former lover's fantasy offer, preferring his settled existence: "It was not a pretend life."

These stories have been written with the sun directly overhead, in contrast to the retrospective veils of evening light which are so much Salter's style. Last Night is a beautifully weighted collection, fully the equal of Dusk, and a deeply gratifying reminder of what reading is for.

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