April 18, 1988 12:00 PM

by James Salter

The stories in this collection take place everywhere from Texas to Italy. The characters range from small-town construction workers to dilettantes in Barcelona. Yet the mood is consistent, reflecting a pervasive sense of resignation and disconnection. At a reunion for a group of West Point alumni, the main character is alienated because he has become not a soldier but an artist. A Long Island divorcée fires her au pair girl after reading—and obviously envying—the graphic love letters the girl receives from a boyfriend. A screenwriter on a European movie location has an idle affair with a publicity assistant while the film’s male star, who is having an idle affair with his leading lady, wonders how long it will be until he is a has-been. Salter, a novelist whose best-known books are A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years, writes with an economy of language bordering on the cryptic, as if he has to make every verb count. Each word must carry so much meaning that even a slight false move is disturbing. In one story he asks for double takes when he describes a man watching his lover sleep: “She lies still, she does not even breathe.” It’s soon clear the woman is alive and that it was the man’s illusion that she wasn’t breathing; by then, however, the story’s fragile tension has been broken. Most of the time Salter’s technique and his tone mesh. In Twenty Minutes, a woman injured in a riding accident lies alone, dying: “Her face was wet and she was shivering. Now it was here. Now you must do it, she realized. She knew there was a God, she hoped it. She shut her eyes.” These vignettes are, indeed, thoroughly cheerless. Yet the characters are affecting and oddly sympathetic, perhaps because their desperation so often stems from a refusal to acknowledge pain. (North Point, $14.95)

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