The ragged tumult of intimacy has long been the province of James Salter, writer of the exquisitely appropriate sentence; the excruciatingly penetrating...

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“Last Night”

by James Salter

Knopf, 144 pp., $20

The ragged tumult of intimacy has long been the province of James Salter, writer of the exquisitely appropriate sentence; the excruciatingly penetrating short story; the impressionistic, incandescent novel. In “A Sport and a Pastime,” “Light Years” (arguably one of the best novels ever) and “Solo Faces,” he has taken the art of fiction into a realm all his own; in “Burning the Days” and “Gods of Tin,” he has made nonfiction high art.

In his latest, “Last Night,” a collection of 10 short stories, neither his style nor his content flags. He writes with intensity and serious intent, illuminating those places we try to hide, never letting us off the hook. In “Comet,” a drunken wife taunts her husband beyond endurance, but endure he does because he has thrown over his first family for her; he is besotted. “He could have licked her palms like a calf does salt.” What more do we need to know?

In “Eyes of the Stars,” love is recalled, loss is mourned and a woman alone says: “She remembered the beer bottles rolling around in the back of the car when she was fifteen and he was making love to her every morning and she did not know if she was beginning life or throwing it away, but she loved him and would never forget.”

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A dog becomes the object of Ardis’ obsession in “My Lord You.” He belongs to a drunken poet she met at a dinner party. It wouldn’t be appropriate to stalk the poet; she is married, after all, and his behavior is outrageous, but she is drawn to him beyond her strength to resist. The dog becomes his surrogate.

In “Give,” a couple has worked out a way of stopping each other’s bothersome habits. “The small things that could be overlooked at first but in time became annoying, we had a way of handling. … It was called a give. … The phrase that was used over and over, an eating habit, even a piece of favorite clothing, a give was a request to abandon it.” Anna asks her husband, Jack, to give up his best friend, Des, because she knows they are lovers. He does it and says, “I felt the injustice for a long time. He’s brought only pleasure to us.”

The final story, “Last Night,” is chilling. Walter and Marit have decided that this will be the night she receives the fatal injection that will end her suffering from terminal illness. Sandra, who Marit thinks is nothing other than a family friend, is present. When the injection is administered, Sandra and Walter adjourn to pursue their own activities. Things do not go as planned.

Salter is a master at capturing that moment when matters go completely and unexpectedly awry. He then mines that moment for all its beauty, horror, poignancy, love, lust, loss, grief and confusion, and renders it in unforgettable prose.