Friday, March 17, 2006
Backlog #3: The Salter-palooza

Two more Salters round out my Salter mini-obsession: Dusk and Other Stories and his first novel A Sport and a Pastime. The novel suffered a little from the lens of his autobiography. It ended up feeling like regurgitated bits of experience tied together with some fantasy. The overall structure of an envious writer looking in on the lovers, imagining their happiness and falling away I found more distracting than helpful--the details of Dean and Anne Marie are lovely and delicately drawn--to be reminded that they are imagined diminishes them, and the whole enterprise of telling their story.

The writing is spare and sharp, as ever, though in places it is less assured. Reading him out of order in this way makes his grace feel more like a style, more mannered, as he finds his way to it--close to a parody of his later writing. This is unfair, of course, but such is the experience of it. Still the prose is fine, and makes me wish for France, and for a huge heavy metal car, aristocratically engineered, for those long roads, and for cafes out of the cold, for those doors opening to those hours:

He puts her to bed in warm pajamas. She is innocent, he decides. She smiles softly, the calm of a long convalescence in her face. Finally he turns to go but, at the door her voice stops him. Yes? Turn out the light , she says. He does. like Lucifer, he creates darkness and he descends.

Dusk and Other Stories, on the other hand, is stronger, and in those stories, the intense compression of his prose works to dazzling effect, pulling together the threads of the story into dense passages that are lovely and rich as novels. Some of the stories are sketches, to be sure--little exercises that have taken on some substance, but the best of them (and they are very good, especially the endings) are remarkable. It is as if the strengths of his work is the same in the good stories as in the novels, without all of the intervening prose, which is lovely, but did not add corresponding weight or depth to the emotion of the words. I think of the contrast with something like Edward Jones' The Known World, where there were long, meandering stretches of story that did not seem to be going anywhere in particular, but then, abruptly, took on great force and added great power to a specific scene.

This is not an opening or a closing, not the first line, but just lovely:

That afternoon he had seen a robin picking at something near the edge of the grass, seizing it, throwing it in the air, seizing it again: a toad, its small, stunned legs fanned out. The bird threw it again. In ravenous burrows, the blind shrews hunted ceaselessly, the pointed tongues of reptiles were testing the air, there was the crunch of abdomens, the passivity of the trapped,the soft throes of mating. His daughters were asleep down the hall. Nothing is safe except for an hour.

Will Lawrence finally come? soon, soon, though it is neglect rather than attention that delays him...


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