I have friends, none of whom would thank me for naming them, who swear by Poundland. Or is it Poundstretcher? It’s so hard to tell the difference. I dropped into one – or was it the other? – recently because that’s where our nearest post office is located. How this latest assault on civilisation as we used to know it came to pass I haven’t a clue. When I enquired of someone who I thought might be able to enlighten me, he said: ‘Ask Gordon Brown.’ Which, of course, I will when next I bump into him.
Poundland was busy with folk stocking up on dynamite to unblock drains, pyramid-size bars of Toblerone and enough toilet roll to satisfy the requirements of an incontinent army. In the stationery section, however, I spied a shelf of hardback books to which I was drawn like an addict to absinthe. Most were the kind of fare you find in charity shops but one title stood out. It was a hardback of James Salter’s Collected Stories, published three years ago by Picador at £16.99. I felt as furtive as a shoplifter as I acquired it for a quid.
Salter, who died last year aged 90, is one of the greatest American short story writers. As John Banville remarks in his introduction, he is probably best known as a novelist. Two of his novels, A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years, may be characterised as classics. But it is in his stories that his essence is to be found and that his style is most marked.
Like Hemingway, with whom it is not ridiculous to compare him, Salter preferred short, sharp, declamatory sentences. Indeed, quite often a sentence seems to bear little relationship to the one that precedes it. Also like Hemingway, there is invariably an erotic undercurrent to what Salter is describing. He expects his readers to intuit what’s going on. If at all possible he doesn’t spell anything out. He is sparing of detail and that which he does supply is freighted with significance.
A nigh perfect example of his work is to be a found in ‘American Express’ which, as Banville intimates, could be said to be ‘a Henry James novel in miniature’. It concerns a pair of youngish, crass American lawyers who, having made a pile in New York, travel to Italy where, in Arezzo, they pick up a young schoolgirl. ‘We’re headed for trouble,’ says one. ‘There’s not going to be any trouble,’ replies the other.
I found reading ‘American Express’ is as unsettling as Nabokov’s Lolita. It is that rare thing, a beautiful work of art that leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. I must visit Poundland – or possibly Poundstretcher – more often.