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Book Review : Short Stories That Ignite When Struck

February 17, 1988|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Dusk and Other Stories by James Salter (North Point Press: $14.95; 156 pages)

To say that James Salter's short stories are terse, expertly written and able to command a range of moods with the most economical of gestures is to tell the truth and deceive.

Because the next adjective ought to be cool, and you would have one more specimen of the accomplished and distanced mode that has marked the strongest American short story fiction until recently, though I think it is being overtaken.

But that has nothing to do with Salter. The missing word is not cool but resplendent. That is not a Salterian adjective, not because it is a hot word but because it is rather general. Salter, in his carefully laid gunpowder train, drops a white-hot phrase that ignites the whole thing, but it is as precise as a match flare. It is the single sudden crescendo in a Renaissance motet, and it will blow your heart out.

What can be said about a Salter short story? It is very short, for one thing; four of the 11 stories in this collection are 1,000 words or less. It is very full of life and, often, of death or old age.

Horseback Accident

The five pages of "20 Minutes" use a horseback accident, an unfaithful and departed husband, two would-be affairs, a desert landscape and an air of wealth--each of these conveyed in a sentence or two--to sum up the barren and painful life of a woman who lies on the ground, her bones crushed. She screams as she begins to die; later, those who come upon her body find dirt in her ears.

The scream, the dirt; these are the match points I was speaking of. They set fire to our carefully catalogued sensations.

Except for "Foreign Shores," which seems loaded against the rich divorcee who dismisses her German nursemaid when she finds a packet of pornographic letters in her belongings, Salter's intention is entirely absorbed by the story. You cannot tell where he inserted it.

On the other hand, perfectly self-contained, they beckon us. They trail a ribbon to pull us along. They accomplish themselves and then they turn to us, as if to say: How do I look?

Brief, Telling Narrative

Take "Dirt," one of the loveliest of the stories. It is a brief account of the last days of a carpenter-builder in a small Texas town. Each sentence is concrete and innocent, and together they bleed. Harry moves stiffly but, as he props up the sagging floor of a house and lays a new foundation, he uses his entire strength and knowledge. He allows his young assistant, Billy, to take a heavier share only as the day goes on and he literally bends with effort.

Billy frequents the gussied-up bar where the insurance salesmen and construction workers drink, and takes their kidding about Harry, who never sets foot in the place and refuses to charge--or pay--going rates. Harry dies quietly at the end, but Salter spreads his death throughout the brief and telling narrative.

"He was down alone in the far fields of his life," he writes near the beginning, and the phrase signals the subtle elegy that is being recited for an older and straighter time. It is another match-flare, its sudden lyricism invites us in.

An Ultimate Yuppie

Salter's brevities are a marvel and powerfully moving. But some of his longer explorations are even better. "American Express" is a chilling story about a kind of ultimate yuppie and his sidekick. Starting as two junior lawyers living in New York, Frank and Alan are boyish and laid-back.

Out of what seems like sheer high spirits, they take on a case nobody else in their law firm wants. They work prodigiously on it to the point where they become indispensable; then they leave the law firm, steal the client, and get one-third of an enormous settlement.

Bit by bit they grow harder; or rather, Frank does, while Alan takes his place as devoted--and captive--No. 2. Depravity steals in gradually; Salter has shown us two playful puppies and imperceptively draws a wolf out of one, a jackal out of the other.

In some, there is a borderline of mystery. "The Cinema" seems simply to be an engaging narrative about an idealistic film writer, the actress he idolizes, the imperious leading man whom she loves, and the agile and accommodating director. It is almost a comic vignette; but something more tugs at the reader, and I can't identify it.

In "The Destruction of the Goetheanum," set in Switzerland, there is a haunting story about a decayed and unknown "great writer" and the strange young woman who serves him and eludes him, as well as the smitten and baffled narrator. In "Am Strande von Tanger," a naive young German woman, on vacation on the Spanish coast, is crushed between her bland and self-absorbed husband and an older woman friend whose bullying cynicism turns Spain into a vicious cockpit, "and seems to have deprived the past of all decency."

There is a mystery, as I say. How does Salter do it? I can only add a phrase from the flap copy that I would like to have thought of: "Each of these stories is told with weighted calm."

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