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Book Forum: Novels   |    
Last Night: Stories • The Dog of the Marriage: Stories
PETER D. KRAMER, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2005;162:2408-2409. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.162.12.2408
View Author and Article Information
Providence, R.I.

By James Salter. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2005, 134 pp., $20.00; $12.00 (paper). • By Amy Hempel. New York, Scribner, 2005, 142 pp., $20.00.

"Writer’s writer" is a supreme compliment that contains a trace of pity. The label is reserved for stylists who are admired by their fellow authors and whose work is taught in graduate schools—but otherwise goes unread. I don’t know that I’ve seen a review of James Salter’s fiction that fails to use the phrase.

Salter does have an audience. His memoir, Burning the Days(1), received attention, and in the 1960s he contributed screenplays for popular movies like Downhill Racer. But Salter’s novels and short stories have not found broad readership. As an admirer, I have tried to make sense of this problem. It may be that the work seems dated. The subject matter and viewpoint are ruggedly, unashamedly masculine. War and womanizing play central roles. The style draws on Hemingway and, more especially, the existential novels of the postwar period. The tone is unsparing. No man, however well-meaning, will remain likable to the reader. Every weakness of the characters will be exploited, every flaw revealed. Considerations of social class enter in a manner that can seem old-fashioned—as if F. Scott Fitzgerald were right that the rich are different, and more fascinating. But oh, the way Salter pulls it off! The sentences are adamantine. The control is absolute. If Salter wants to change voice, he does, peremptorily. The author is in charge. We can trust that the tale will be a good one.

Salter is 80 now, and he is working in a compact mode. Like its fellows in the collection, the title story in Last Night is 5,000 or 6,000 words long. The setup is powerful. A woman has uterine cancer, metastasized. After dinner, as planned, her husband will inject her with a fatal dose of poison. As the needle enters, she remembers the day they met. Then we see her from her husband’s perspective, in a series of the straightforward sentences that are the Salter trademark:

She had embarked. My God, he thought, My God. He had known her when she was in her twenties, long-legged and innocent. Now he had slipped her, as in a burial at sea, beneath the flow of time.

Inevitably, something goes awry. The wife does not die. What she discovers the next morning lays bare the hypocrisy of the man. The revelation deprives him of any remaining comfort and justifies the dry conclusion: "That was just the way it was." Those sentences. The temptation, reviewing Salter, is to quote them endlessly:

Philip married Adele on a day in June. It was cloudy and the wind was blowing. Later the sun came out.…They were married in her house, the one she’d gotten in the divorce. All her friends were there. She believed strongly in friendship. The room was crowded.

You can see the author’s eye twinkle as he inserts the slight change in viewpoint—"She believed…" It’s a trick borrowed from Chekhov, underlining through subtle incongruity. That’s the other temptation with Salter—analyzing how it’s done.

The same is true when discussing Amy Hempel, another writer’s writer. Here, too, the sentences are perfect, the emotional effects are strong—and the pitfall, for a fellow writer, is envy: how does she pull it off? The same men who inhabit Salter’s stories drive Hempel’s, but her interest is in the women who allow those predators and narcissists to injure them. One victim turns to friends for comfort:

The women advised long walks. They told the wife to watch the sun rise and set, to look for solace in the natural world, though they admitted there was no comfort to be found in the world and they would all be fools to expect it.

Hempel has found a readership in glossy magazines, in part through a genre called "short shorts." Here is one of her stories, "Memoir," in its entirety:

Just once in my life—oh, when have I ever wanted anything just once in my life?

The sentence asks to be unpacked. We imagine a woman about to complain, and then taking responsibility, perhaps for repeated disasters—and yet holding fast to pride in her hunger for experience. Repetition is not only compulsion; it is also energy, hope, character, and comedy. Hempel’s books, too, deserve wider circulation. The Dog of the Marriage is a good starting point. In the title story, a woman wavers between stances:

I suppose there are many things one should try not to take personally. An absence of convenient parking, inclement weather, a husband who finds that he loves someone else.

Later, she considers the inclination to self-blame:

Did I invite this? It is like sitting in prayers at school when the headmistress says "Who dropped lunch bags on the hockey field?" and although you went home for lunch, you think, I did, I did.

These two collections have an odd resonance. Hempel discusses cancer. Salter builds a narrative around a woman’s attachment to a dog. Dogs are Hempel’s signature detail. When she is not writing or teaching, she trains guide dogs, and she brings mention of dogs into every essay or book. Dogs stand for decency in a world half-peopled, almost, by James Salter’s males.

The Dog of the Marriage displays the range possible in short fiction devoted a single topic—sensitive women and their social surround. One bravura story has the form of a protest, over an unfair ticket, to the New York City Parking Violations Bureau. Although she has coped with some of life’s major insults, the complainant does not take minor ones in stride. The letter ends:

I want what is fair. I don’t want a fight. But the truth is, I’m shaking—right now, writing this letter. My hand is shaking while I write. It’s saying what I can’t say—this is the way I say it.

This is the way we say it, whether self-confident man or self-conscious woman: in short, declarative sentences, with words of one or two syllables, adjectives and adverbs all but banned.

Salter J: Burning the Days: Recollection. New York, Random House, 1977
 
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References

Salter J: Burning the Days: Recollection. New York, Random House, 1977
 
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