Reading Lessons

Roberto Bolaño’s “Last Evenings on Earth”

The unbearable sadness of fathers and sons

By Thomas Chatterton Williams | September 21, 2015



Roberto Bolaño’s “Last Evenings on Earth” is the most astonishing short story I have ever read. Whether it’s technically perfect, I can’t say (though, in a sly way, it might be), but I’m sure it is the best. More than any other short story I know, it reveals the quality I most desire, not just from fiction but from any kind of art, and perhaps from life itself. I’d call this quality mood, but Nabokov described it better as that “telltale tingle between the shoulder blades.” And yet it is impossible in summation to isolate precisely what in Bolaño’s story accomplishes that feat. The premise is not complex: a melancholy and intellectually inclined young man called B sets off from Mexico City for Acapulco with his handsome father, a truck driver and ex-boxer, on his first vacation. B is interested in a book on French Surrealist poets he’s brought along. Upon arrival at the hotel, his father inquires with the concierge about brothels, irrevocably setting the tone for the trip and inadvertently dividing himself from B. And that is basically it. Over the course of the next several days, they drink, smoke, eat, swim, read, dream, go their separate ways, and reconvene. There is tenderness as well as misunderstanding and the recognizable, unbearable sadness that must pass between fathers and sons—all of it conveyed in effortless, at times achingly beautiful prose. I must have read this story a dozen times, but the ending is never the same. The fact that this is merely the title story in an uncommonly thorough and balanced collection—and that it may not truly be the finest story in the selection—inspires awe. Of course, Bolaño earned his enormous global reputation from his big novels, The Savage Detectives and 2666. But everything that dazzles on the larger scale is already present, in miniature, here.

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