Matchless narrative economy and surgically precise prose are the identifying marks of this exemplary gathering: ten stories by the semi-legendary veteran author (Burning the Days, 1997, etc.)
Sex, betrayal, aging and death are dominant themes, whether in a night of shared palaver among manless “girl” friends that ends in a plaintive cry for attention (“Such Fun”); a vignette showing a charismatic, unstable male friend’s effect on a complacent marriage (“Give”); or the tale (“Bangkok”) of a married bookseller’s resistance to the promiscuous former lover who challenges him to choose between “Life and a kind of pretend life.” Salter’s great gift is his ability to trace the arc of an entire life, or several shared or separated lives, with a masterly fusion of crisp dialogue and penetrating summary statement. In “Comet,” for example, the future of a seemingly successful second marriage is adumbrated in the wife’s sardonic acknowledgement of her new husband’s history of infidelities. D.H. Lawrence might have devised the haunting symbolism that pervades “My Lord You,” in which an unhappy wife’s fixation on a self-destructive poet is crystallized in the figure of his enormous dog, which follows her silently (“its shoulders moving smoothly, like a kind of machine”). Elsewhere, a heartless, calculating “party girl” is “handled” (in “Platinum”) by the wealthy lawyer who shares her with his errant-son-in-law (it reads like a combination of Edith Wharton and John O’Hara). The grief felt by a stockbroker too timid to seize the happiness offered him is depicted in “Palm Court,” and a career army man’s victimization by his selfish Czech wife, and eventual escape from her spell into the consolations of tradition and responsibility, is etched in seven icy pages in “Arlington.” All Salter’s themes merge memorably in the concluding (title) story, a compact symphony of mutual devotion, human frailty and lingering regret.
One of the masters displays his wares, to stunning effect.