Maybe it's because I think in novel terms, but I never cease to be amazed by a short story that makes a character, a place, a whatever viable and memorable despite the limitations of the form. And I'm in awe of how many different but comparably compelling ways there are to do that; all have in common a knack for instantly insinuating and evoking. It's an art and craft of language that seems more difficult to me than novel writing.
Reading this (my first Salter) prompted me to start a shelf of favorite short story collections, but this one didn't make the cut. Of the eleven stories, three get five stars. The rest never fully engaged, which may mean only that they didn't work for me; the writing was periodically stellar in Salter's sharp, spare way, but the words never quite added up. Even so, the following are reason enough to want to read more of him.
A woman is thrown from a horse and dies alone in a field vividly aware of the circumstance but increasingly distracted by recollections of her life and loves, eventually to the point of madness. Past and present are rendered seamless in the telling, which is by turns plaintive and horrifying.
-- "Some failed, some divorced, some got shot in trailers like Doug Portis who had the excavation business and was seeing the policeman's wife. Some like her husband moved to Santa Barbara and became the extra man at dinner parties. It was growing dark. Help me, someone, help me . . ." --
Two disillusioned, middle-aged lawyer buddies in search of their lost souls go traipsing around Europe picking up women and girls. To start the telling and the lives seem almost random and incidental, but the language immediately dazzles -- "It's hard now to think of all the places and nights . . . unknown brilliant faces jammed at the bar . . . the dark, dramatic eye that blazes for a moment and disappears . . ." The mix of incidents and introspection, humor and regret make the story feel honest and rueful and real in the end. I get the feeling that this one is Salter's signature style at its best.
-- "They lay silently. She was staring at something across the room. She was making him feel uncomfortable . . .
'It wouldn't work. It's the attraction of opposites,' he said.
'We're not opposites.'
'I don't mean just you and me. Women fall in love when they get to know you. Men are just the opposite. When they finally know you they're ready to leave.'
She got up without saying anything and began gathering her clothes. He watched her dress in silence. There was nothing interesting about it.
'I'll get you a cab,' he said.
'I used to think you were intelligent,' she said. --
A man goes in search of the source of a noise in the heat of a late August night. As the search devolves into nightmare it becomes a metaphor for his life. Exquisitely dreamy and creepy.
-- "It kept pouring out, more and more insane. He could not identify, he could never repeat, he could not even describe the sound. It had enlarged, it was pushing everything else aside. He stopped trying to comprehend it and instead allowed it to run through him, to invade him like a chant. Slowly, like a pattern that changes its appearance as one stares at it and begins to shift into another dimension, inexplicably the sound altered and exposed its real core. He began to recognize it. It was words. They had no meaning, no antecedents, but they were unmistakably a language . . ." --