Salter’s Despicable Hero – Themes of Failure in James Salter’s Dusk

Kristofer Barr

Professor Rowan Philips

English 204

8 October 2014


Salter’s Despicable Hero – Themes of Failure in James Salter’s Dusk


In James Salter’s, Dusk, misery is not a feeling but a state of being. The people of Salter’s Dusk live lives of quiet debasement. These characters don’t accomplish goals and they don’t fix the errors in their lives. What conflict there is remains unsolved, the hardship left to follow them, and these characters, it seems, will never understand why. The short story collection, whose works range through eleven unconnected and yet thematically similar stories, portrays a human existence without understanding. Each story stands alike in the way their characters seem to embody their pathos. From alcoholics, to failed authors and starving artists, from a doomed movie production, from recent divorcees and to the hopelessly despondent these stories wind their way through the lives of their subjects, focusing not on their triumphs but instead on their failures. Perhaps, it might be said that no single character presented throughout the collection of short stories has a happy ending, but it might be better stated that no single story in the collection has much of a conclusion at all. If Salter’s intention is the exposition of human frailty, then his characterization must thus be perpetually in the negative. Without clear resolution, Salter’s message, always unwritten and understated, much like the feelings of his characters, makes finding purpose an elusive prospect. Yet, considering the wealth of character evidence, Salter’s vision of humanity as a failed, miserable, grotesquely pathetic race of subsistent lower life-forms, with a lack of evidence to support any kind of positive view, must be Salter’s view of humanity. It is a kind of ugliness Salter portrays in his characters, failures all, and worse, not a one of them seems to realize it.

Of all characters to embody the archetype of failure, none do it with greater gusto than William Hedges. Salter’s “The Destruction of the Goetheanum” begins beautifully with nonsense. “In the garden, standing alone, he found the young woman who was a friend of the writer William Hedges, then unknown but even Kafka had lived in obscurity, she said, and so moreover had Mendel, perhaps she meant Mendeleyev.” The first sentence conveys the irony composite in the surface of the story. From the start the audience is bathed in the incompetent glow of William Hedges, his life unimportant, yes, yet compared to the likes of Kafka in unrealized brilliance. The sentence is structured in such a way as to wrap William Hedges in the limelight, a sort of mystery, a prize of understanding. The theme of incorrectly cited sources, such as when the girl, Nadine, as she calls herself, mixes up Mendel and Mendeleyev, continues throughout. It illustrates a certain kind of misunderstanding, a universal incompetence. The characters, from Hedges to Nadine and to the nameless narrator that gallops after her, none hold much more than a smidgeon of worth. Nadine “moved with a kind of negligent grace, like a dancer whose career is ended.” She is described as “the illusionist of Hedges’ life.” Nadine acts as a kind of charlatan in the place of Hedges. She claims to be German, but is little more than a Pennsylvanian. She is aloof, mysterious, drawing the nameless narrator about by the draw of her irresistible interestingness. And yet, in the end, none of them or what they do, really amounts to anything.

As far as intellectual genius goes, Hedges is a sickly man with only the mildest delusions of fame-hood. He has no claim to fame, no great genius lurking behind his mask of a wet blanket. Hedges is introduced and immediately gets into a car crash, spills his drink, mumbles a few incoherent sentences and proceeds to leave. What Nadine illustrated as a kind of possessive genius, a magnetic man of occult mysteries and devilish cunning turn out to be the fabrications of a young woman with delusions of greatness. One of the first stories she tells the lady-whipped narrator is of Hedges’ great work, “The Goetheanum,” supposedly a masterpiece of fiction, based on what is described as architectural beauty incarnate. Hedges believed that society had reached its apex of understanding, that it would have to become renewed. He states that, “he wasn’t certain yet of what the path would be. His writing would reveal it, but he was working against time, against a tide of events, he was in exile, like Trotsky. Unfortunately, there was no one to kill him.” Salter’s style is akin to that of a disembodied marionettist. He chooses what he wants to show, yet the reader never loses the sense that Salter is there behind the curtain. Salter’s irony-tinged venom seems to drip from the pages. Hedges, Nadine, the disabused narrator, all would eventually come to nothing, living half-fulfilled lives, shown not by the author, but illustrated in the nuanced impotence of his characters as the narrator and Hedges both lose the aloof Nadine. And the Goethaneum? It had burnt down a few years after it was built, another failed prospect at grandeur, another false conception of beauty.

Interestingly, with the exception of Lang from “The Cinema,” “The Destruction of the Goetheanum” and the story, “Via Negativa,” are the only stories to feature predominately writers as characters. Both writers are manifestations of a trope – the writer with dreams of fame, but whose ambitions might only possibly occur when the sullen bastards are dead. “Via Negativa,” the story of the worldly conceit of the conventional starving artist, begins with a haunting description. “There is a kind of minor writer who is found in a room of the library signing his novel. His index finger is the color of tea, his smile filled with bad teeth. He knows literature, however. His sad bones are made of it. He knows what was written and where writers died. His opinions are cold but accurate. They are pure, at least there is that.” Salter’s analysis inserts itself in an ironic commentary, like a godly voice tired and sick of its creations. The description rings of disappointment; the words resound with the noise of self-destructive pride. This man, Nile, as portrayed by this opening paragraph stands as the representative for all geniuses whose ambition is to be famous after they are dead.

Nile, the resident failure of “Via Negativa,” purports himself as a kind of “writer’s writer,” a snide, insidious pauper who holds with contempt the well-to-do of the writing world. His description goes thusly, “His hair was uncombed. His face had the arrogance, the bruised lips of someone determined to live without money.” Special attention is paid to his teeth, a symbol of his gross disgust with modernity, but they also serve as a reminder. Nile himself is rotting. He has not achieved greatness, and he will never have the wealth and recognition he secretly craves. “A great longing for money, a thirst rose in him, a desire to be recognized. He was walking for the hundredth time on streets which in no way acknowledged him…” Nile, whose name sounds discernibly like the word, nihil, or “nothing,” is a null entity, a sad and forgetful hero, doomed to repeat tired clichés to his girlfriend, Jeanine, who ultimately leaves him for the writer Nile mocked. Salter closes the curtain of “Via Negativa” in a ironic puff of nondescript irony, mocking Jeanine for choosing this other writer over Nile. Nile, a looser of the finest caliber, may not have been much, and yet this other writer, this “P” demeans Jeanine, sexualizes her, makes her into a caricature of his own delusional magnanimity, saying that his favorite thing about her was that “her breasts… were like those of black tribal girls in the National Geographic.” Salter thus concludes on a tale that tells of nothing, nothing gained and nothing bettered. Everything stays placid in its misery, doomed to failure.

The idea that, seemingly, the entire human condition is doomed to failure appears to be a common theme throughout Salter’s works, and yet a nagging presence of unrestricted narration, creates a kind of openness of meaning, mediated not through his own values but left up to the interpretation of the reader. Salter’s endings, especially, tend toward the indeterminable. They do not resolve with any kind of finality; they have no denouement. Instead, they act like a muddy window, giving limited glimpse into future and meaning. Take “Am Strande Von Tanger,” per instance. He ends “Tanger” without any explanation as to whose thoughts comprise it. “She has small breasts and large nipples. Also, as she herself says, a rather large behind. Her father has three secretaries. Hamburg is close to the sea.” Both Nico and Malcolm lay down on the bed, restless, and their thoughts drift, yet whether it is Malcolm deciding finally to break off with Nico or whether it is Nico deciding to return home, away from Spain and its spiritual murderousness is impossible to say. Salter uses no quotations. Salter’s entire intention is to end without clarity and without closure, giving none to his characters and none to the reader.

Salter’s tendency to drift without logical reason is best represented in “The Cinema.” It is the story of a doomed movie production, sure, but “The Cinema” spends the entirety of its time ambling through the lives of the men and women involved in the production. The movie functions like a backdrop, giving the characters impetus in their own personal dramas. Anna, the leading actress is dismissive, sullen and enraptured by the leading actor. Guivi, a shallow, pretentious misogynist, has all the ambition to be a famous actor, yet none of the skill. Iles, the director who preaches like a great orator resigns the whole movie as a flop without a touch of regret. And Lang, the introverted scriptwriter whose work gets butchered beyond all his capacity to control it, must simply stand by ineffectually and watch.

Salter drifts from moment to moment  restlessly. “The Cinema” rarely stays put, often moving beyond the walls of plot, flashing back into character histories, infiltrating their minds, forcefully revealing their deepest insecurities. Lang begins dating the director’s assistant, Eva, a worried woman whose family is sedentary and whose brother, irrelevantly, “was crazy… well, perhaps not crazy but enough to make [her family] weep.”  The point of view constantly shifts and would seem sporadic, except Salter’s choices are never random, but carefully construed glimpses into the darker recesses of character background and emotional impetus, even when the characters don’t know it themselves. Time flashes forward and the reader is paid glimpses of the desolate future where “tinted posters of [Guivi] would peel from the sides of buildings more and more remote , the resemblance fading, his name becoming stale. He would smile across alleys, into the sour darkness.” It is not enough for Salter to leave these characters in the present. He must drag them forward, kicking and screaming, through their own misery. In the end, purposeless and finally at a loss of ambition, Lang sinks silently into his bed, listening to the nonsensical ramblings of Eva drift further into nothing.

There are characters, too, in Dusk, who seem to have lost their sense of purpose, yet in “Akhnilo,” that purpose seems to have been a doomed conjecture from the beginning. “Akhnilo” is a story paying witness to the opulence of failure. Eddie Fenn, a quiet man “with thinning hair and a shy smile,” a family man, a Dartmouth graduate and a recovering alcoholic, lives a quiet, domestic life, and that’s just the problem. The diction in “Akhnilo,” perhaps the most obtuse or perplexing of any story in Dusk, describes Eddie’s mental breakdown, and his suggested bender, as he finds a hallucinatory barn that leads him to some sort of truth that only makes sense to Eddie. The language denotes a manic obsession. It’s a kind of propulsion, the language itself, exteriorizing in “four words, distinct and inimitable,” words that seem like the most precious things to Eddie, about which the reader has no clue. The words are a manifestation of the story itself, almost. “Akhnilo,” a nonsense word, is the only one left to Eddie by the end, having crossed back over the threshold of his prison-like abode. Salter illustrates two universes in “Akhnilo,” reality and the world of self-delusion. The world of self-delusion is a place of shadow, his home a prison. “Outside, the trees were like black reflections. The stars were hidden. The only galaxies were the insect voices that filled the night.” Out there, beyond his confinement, for Eddie, lies salvation. Eddie yearns for the days of his alcoholism. His failure, his, a freedom from expectation, from responsibility, becomes these nonsense words, which are just that, nonsense, nihilistic and worthy to him in their unworthiness.

Eddie’s life, and his desires, as it turns out, are all nonsense as well, a pack of lies. His family may have saved him from self-destruction, “but not without cost,” as he believes. He yearns for the senseless beauty of a time “when Havana was a legend and millionaires committed suicide after smoking a last cigar.” Eddie’s adventure translates through the metaphorical tunnel of self-imposed grandeur, a means of finding what he believes to be truth. Eddie is described as “quenched,” coming from a man who had nothing, who “had never really set out in life.” Failure in “Akhnilo,” as opposed to the other stories in the collection, becomes the self-imposed ideal, and yet, for the reality in which the audience and Eddie’s family resides, it only represents heartbreak. Eddie is under the impression that he could hide his issues from his family, and like with everything else in his pathetic life, he is wrong. He escapes out into the night, hoping to return home without being seen, and there were times before that too, like the time when he woke up passed out at the foot of his car.

Eddie thinks he couldn’t possibly hurt his children, that they couldn’t know, but they do. His daughter recalls these moments of drunken stupor, the very moments Eddie selfishly thinks of as a part he and he alone was able to play, “when unhappiness filled the house and slamming doors and her father clumsy with affection came into their room at night to tell them stories and fell asleep at the foot of her bed.” It never occurs to Eddie that he was failing anybody else, yet it mattered to him, his own failure, because, with a life now “quenched,” the one thing he had left was his puerile lack of control. “He was going to be redeemed,” he thinks. “His life had not turned out as he expected but he still thought of himself as special, as belonging to no one. In fact he thought of failure as romantic. It had almost been his goal.” Eddie, of all the characters presented in Dusk, if not the most evil man, certainly represents the most pathetic, whose lame fantasies hurt more than he realizes. He is a character firmly in the negative, a pure manifestation of Salter’s despicable hero.

As it stands, it seems Salter’s sole analysis of character is just that, despicable. However, with such ambiguity present throughout the stories, a greater explanation must be uncovered. Salter’s Dusk occupies a distinct simultaneous understanding in that its characters, whether horrible or pathetic, nuanced in their debasement or simply corrupt, are never moralized wholly. Failure, a universal aspect for all stories in the collection, fails to encompass a total thematic understanding of the work. Even with those characters who come into or are born into success, such as Allen and Frank from “American Express,” or Gloria from “Foreign Shores,” their lives seem just as pathetic or downright wretched as anyone else’s. Dusk, the title story seems to be an underwhelming facet of the overall picture, yet dusk, as an image, perfectly encapsulates the emotional wavelength of every one of Salter’s stories. Their moral compass exists at the twilight of understanding, simultaneously light and dark. Salter’s method of explanation constantly refuses the notion that his characters can be explained perfectly, even while his disgust with the people he invented shines through in his narration. His characters are shadows that are not shadows, people that are not people.  Salter may see the bad in people, perhaps the worst, but he does not expect his audience to, as well.


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