The phrase for any novel by James Salter is “A major literary event”. It’s especially true for “All That Is.”
Salter is known in the trade as a “writer’s writer” — underappreciated by the public but revered by those in the know. “All That Is” is his first full-length novel since 1979. He is now 87. By any sane measure, it’s likely that “All That Is” will be all there is — his final book.
I have been an admirer of Salter’s work ever since I read A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years as a pup. I have had the privilege of knowing Salter for three decades. The length of our friendship and his four score and seven years seem like fiction; for me, my friends are always the age they were when I met them. So I have trouble with the valedictory tone that’s more or less expected in any assessment of “All That Is.” In my head, I see Salter at his desk, surrounded by notebooks, turning words this way and that, struggling to write not his final book but his best one.
But ”All That Is” does invite us to read it as a summing up. It has that heft: 300 pages, for Salter a thick book indeed. In form, the novel is surprisingly traditional. Salter, known for books that are short and terse because his sentences seem more carved than written, follows Philip Bowman, a smart, sensitive World War II vet who stumbles into the book business and has a long, almost distinguished career as an editor. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
Publishing, even in New York, does not lend itself to heroics; Bowman “liked to read with the silence and the golden color of the whiskey as his companions. He liked food, people, talk, but reading was an inexhaustible pleasure.” I’m down with that, but I live in New York, I’ve known that man. His work and joy are interior; a book about such a man requires a second engine.
That engine is Bowman’s parallel career with women. When we meet him, Bowman is not exactly surging with testosterone. His first marriage — his only marriage — is to the wrong woman. How could it be otherwise? “He loved her for not only what she was but what she might be, the idea that she might be otherwise did not occur to him or did not matter. Why would it occur? When you love you see a future according to your dreams.” That’s an interesting idea. It is not, however, an idea that leads to high drama.
That marriage is followed by a promising affair with a woman in London: “It seemed his manhood had suddenly caught up with him, as if it had been waiting somewhere in the wings.” No kidding:
In the bedroom she stepped from her skirt. She stood for a moment, hugging herself, and then slipped off the rest. The glory of her. England stood before him, naked in the darkness. She had been, in fact, lonely, she was ready to be loved. He was never more sure of his knowledge. He kissed her bare shoulders….
He slipped the dress straps from her shoulders. You could never have anyone like this. His old, fettered life was behind him, it had been transformed as if by some revelation. They made love as if it were a violent crime…
Her blond hair, her lean style. He saw himself now to be another kind of man, the kind he had hoped, fully a man, used to the wonder. Enid smoked cigarettes, she did it only now and again, and breathed out the rich fragrance slowly. The light in the Ritz made her beautiful. The sound of her high heels. There is no other; there will never be another.
But that great love fades.
Who’s next? A woman he meets in a cab. If you read the excerpt of Bowman’s meeting with this woman, you may hope she’ll be his great love. I won’t spoil what follows with her and then, even worse, with her daughter, but by now I began to despair for him. I saw him as fatally weak, not worth caring about, well on his way to the same fate as Viri, in “Light Years.”
Not so. Again, no spoilers, but “All There Is” ends with water. Here, at the end, is the pulse of life, the province of hope, and it is not only welcome but magnificent. Salter, who has the gift of writing sentences that exactly reproduce what we feel and think, moves beyond that incomparable skill and does something even more difficult: He gives us his heart.
For all that, if you have never read Salter, don’t start with this book. Work up to it. Read “A Sport and a Pastime.” Read “Light Years.” Read Burning the Days, his memoir, which tells the story of a West Point graduate and Air Force fighter pilot (more than 100 missions in Korea) and his transformation into a writer. Read the stories in Dusk and Last Night. And only then…
Sounds like a project? Oh no. Dear friend, I have just handed you a gift beyond price.
This review originally appeared, in slightly different form, on Head Butler.
Photo by Tulane Public Relations