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'Last Night': States of Distress, Artfully Portrayed

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

More than 15 years have gone by since award-winning fiction writer James Salter published "Dusk," his first collection of stories. His new volume, "Last Night," gives us 10 more. Alan Cheuse has a review.

ALAN CHEUSE reporting:

Salter, who publishes sparely, is one of those writers whose work you wait for over the years, faithfully, full of hope and expectation. Salter's sentences alone create a certain breathlessness. Of Adele, the main character in the first story, "Comet," he writes, `She was still young enough to be good-looking, the final blaze of it.'

In "My Lord, You," a story I'll come back to in a moment, he writes, `The noon was bottle-green, large houses among the trees and wide farmland, like a memory behind.'

In another story, a woman on a train sits beside the man she may be in love with, `the happiness coming off her like heat.'

The way Salter heaps up phrases, one atop the other; the sharp attachment to disappointment of the well-off and the want-to-be well-off. He gives us an America rich and lustrous and poor enough in spirit to break your heart three times over, as in the story "My Lord, You,", in which a well-off woman in the fashionable district of New York's Long Island becomes fascinated by an unruly alcoholic poet, trespasses through the man's empty house and starts undressing before her husband arrives to rescue her.

Other characters in other stories find themselves in similar states of distress and psychological undress. A young husband named Brian Woodra, a couple of years into a marriage, meets a girl who works at the UN, 22, from Pennsylvania, but with some kind of rare, natural polish. And their affair takes him with such force that he's left, as Salter puts it, empty-legged.

There's Marit, once beautiful, now dying, in the title story "Last Night," who, as her husband Walter sees her, `had a face now that was for the afterlife and those she would meet there.'

Let me tell you one more thing. Leslie in "Such Fun" invites some other New York women over for drinks, and alongside the story of her flawed, failed marriage comes to mind the early memories of her romance--summer mornings in New England; the old iron bridges; cows lying in the wide doorway of a barn; cut corn fields; the smooth, slow look of nameless rivers; the beautiful, calm countryside. How happy one is--or was.

Eden in Salter's fiction about our fallen world has always already been lost. His characters drift, drink, stumble, sink, tempt others to sin and sin themselves. Yet, the memory of an old green time persists, if only in his prose.

SIEGEL: The book is "Last Night" by James Salter. Our reviewer, Alan Cheuse, teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.