I should preface this by saying that I’m not typically a big fan of contemporary short stories: I’m certainly not one to go in for many of the often formulaic and derivative New Yorker style pieces that seem to abound in just about every magazine and collection—often the very ones that get praised so highly. I’m much more interested in short stories that work well, and I’ve found that this is only the case for those who pioneered the form and who were masters at it: Poe, James, Mansfield, Borges, and company. However, I am trying to make an effort in 2013 to read more short stories, so I picked up Salter’s only short story collection today.
Imagine my surprise: me, a reader who prefers novels, besotted by the only short story collection this man wrote. I’m not even sure what Salter does that is so bewitching: his prose is simplistic; his sentences tend to be laconic and terse. But he does very intriguing things with temporality, and he’s able to move adroitly from one character’s perspective to another’s without leaving the reader feeling jarred or causing his narrative to flounder. There is also a skill evident here when it comes to shifting levels of consciousness and memory—for example, in “Twenty Minutes,” a woman who has been thrown from her horse, and knowing she has twenty minutes before shock gives way to full-blown pain, relives the most pressing memories in her life in a nonlinear fashion that isn’t Salter writing stream-of-consciousness so much as him proving to be incisive in getting at people’s various states of psychological unrest and feelings of loneliness.This is also a wide-ranging collection: the title story is one of the strongest—so it’s no surprise that the collection is named after it—and deals with the static life of a woman turned forty-nine, her regrets and her conflicted ways of dealing with those in her every day life; one piece looks at the levels of camaraderie, resentment, and jealousy in our adult relationships as they are formed in early life by focusing on a reunion at West Point; and another story offers an hallucinatory midnight stroll through the suburbs as a man who is a recovering alcoholic either falls off the wagon or, and Salter is really superb in this piece (“Akhnilo”), is completely sober.I’ve reached the ten-minute deadline I give myself for most reviews on here, but I don’t yet feel that I’ve been able to convey just how Salter’s prose struck me here—nor can I attempt to describe just what he does. But whatever he does, he does remarkably well and with such grace and ease that it’s a marvel the complex depths he plumbs here.