‘Last Night’ by James Salter

Last Night by James Salter, 2002

The magic trick:

Shocking the reader with a flashy plot twist at the end that forces a reconsideration of the wife’s motives throughout the story

On first read, I remember being wowed by this story, particularly the devastating and shocking ending. But subsequent reads (two more times through if we’re counting) have revealed it as a little flimsier than I first realized. Its effect is showy and clever, but is it really meaningful? Sure, it’s cool that the title works on two, even three, levels. But so what? The actions and motivations of the characters, when you reconsider them, are not particularly believable. Why would this man have his young girlfriend with him on the final night of his wife’s life? Joining them for dinner? Why in the world would the wife put up with this? Why would the girlfriend agree to this? And if you make exceptions for all of that, and say, ‘Well, it’s reflective of the selfish depths the situations had created in their lives,’ that’s fine, but we’re talking like psychopathic levels of selfishness at that point. The devastating final scene isn’t all that devastating if it happens to extreme characters. It only works if you can picture them as relatively normal people enduring an extreme emotional wretch. So now if we’re talking about psychopaths, it’s far less meaningful. And besides – what is the point of this story anyway? Even if you buy in to all of it as written, what are you left with? A miserable portrait of miserable people. What’s the point? Why was this piece of art brought into the world? I’m not saying everything needs to be happy. Obviously. But what light is this shining on the human experience at all? None that I can see. It’s mean-spirited melodrama dressed in a flashy ending.

Yuck.

Phew, glad to get that off my chest. All that said, the ending forces the reader to reconsider all that has come before in the story. Did the wife know all along? Did she stage this accident? The reader is left scrambling trying to figure out what’s what. And that’s quite a trick on Salter’s part. (I just found the story to be a house of cards ready to topple over when I went back and reconsidered those questions.)

The selection:

Susanna sat in the back as they drove. The roads were empty. They passed houses showing a shifting, bluish light downstairs. Marit sat silent. She felt sadness but also a kind of confusion. She was trying to imagine all of it tomorrow, without her being here to see it. She could not imagine it. It was difficult to think the world would still be there.

At the hotel, they waited near the bar, which was noisy. Men without jackets, girls talking or laughing loudly, girls who knew nothing. On the walls were large French posters, old lithographs, in darkened frames.

—I don’t recognize anyone, Marit commented. Luckily, she added.

Walter had seen a talkative couple they knew, the Apthalls.

—Don’t look, he said. They haven’t seen us. I’ll get a table in the other room.

—Did they see us? Marit asked as they were seated. I don’t feel like talking to anyone.

—We’re all right, he said.

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