Last Night by James Salter

This story was someone’s suggestion for a perfect short story. It was published in the New Yorker in 2002. It begins with a translator, Walter Such, at home in his lounge room with a guest, Susanna, having a drink. His wife, Marit, comes downstairs in a red evening dress ‘in which she had always been seductive, with her loose breasts and sleek, dark hair’. She asks for a drink too. It transpires that Marit is sick and, as the group talks in a desultory way, ominously the narrators tell us, ‘It was the night they had decided would be the one’.

Immediately a tension is set up and the rest of the night (they are going out for a last meal) builds in the light of this revelation – most poignantly, Marit noting the beautiful night sky on the drive home: ‘The wind was moving in the tops of the shadowy trees. In the night sky there were brilliant blue clouds, shining as if in daylight’. Perhaps the reader is a little surprised at the presence of Susanna, a ‘family friend’ who is only twenty-nine and wearing a ‘short skirt’, but we push this to the back of our minds. Salter is very good at describing Walter’s nervousness and difficulty in bringing himself to give Marit the fatal injection of morphine and there is the wonderful line: ‘Now he had slipped her, as in a burial at sea, beneath the flow of time’. At this stage we are in a sad, emotional place.

This could have just been a story about euthanasia, but the Salter does something I’ve noted before in short story writers; he twists the story to make it something else. Walter comes downstairs after the deed, after he has kissed his wife’s hand farewell, and goes to find Susanna. Although she resists being seduced at that time, Walter ‘devoured her, shuddering as if in fright at the end and holding her to him tightly’. They had been having an affair.

The next morning, they are having breakfast when they hear a footstep on the stairs. Marit appears saying to Walter ‘something went wrong … I thought you were going to help me’. A coda tells us that that was the last time Walter and Susanna were together. We are left to wonder whether Marit devised the whole thing to expose Walter, certainly the decision to invite Susanna to be there on the night of the euthanasia (Marit’s decision) suggests this.

As with some ‘twist’ stories, I felt a little manipulated by this one. The reader is led into the poignancy of the initial situation. We get a little of Marit’s backstory and empathise with the emotiveness of her last thoughts, looking around her house, the things that she would see for the last time, the world moving on and she not in it. Then, Marit is diminished in our eyes, if indeed she has devised a cruel revenge on Walter. Marit does indeed have terminal cancer, so whatever revenge she gets can’t mean much. I was left annoyed with this story. Yes, it is clever, but the emotional resonance is cheapened by the cleverness.

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