A New Novel By James Salter: “All That Is”

The new novel, All That Is, by Bridgehampton’s multiple award-winning author James Salter, (Knopf) has been hailed as profound, dazzling, seductive and deeply moving. (I’ve used some of the adjectives myself for Salter’s work, fiction and nonfiction). Salter is known as “a writer’s writer,” a supreme prose stylist, “among the greatest American writers alive.”  All That Is is his first novel in 34 years, which certainly marks it as a literary event. Over time, Salter’s work has evoked comparisons to literary giants, especially Hemingway, with novels that visit (and revisit) big themes—love, ambition, fate—and that chronicle the lives of flawed, handsome, intelligent, charismatic (especially to women), professionally successful men who quest for the good life: food, drink, clothes, travel and love in the form of romance (though they dwell on sex).

All That Is, a sprawling, decades-long tale of often self-contained scenes, follows World War II veteran Phillip Bowman, from his childhood in New Jersey, through the war, to his career as an editor at a well-regarded publishing house in the. But who is the third-person narrator who seems to get inside everyone’s head and keeps shifting perspectives, from this one to that? The intellectual life shows, in conversations Bowman has with lovers and friends and in little disquisitions on literary works and movements and “ideas about life, history, and art.”

Salter is a distinguished author and neighbor (readers may recognize allusions to old Hampton watering holes), and I am uneasy about weighing in with a negative voice among the accolades, but I just didn’t care about the characters. Yes, there is some dazzling prose, but it’s detachable from context. The dialogue could easily find its way to the stage, but these set pieces end rather than conclude, and their placement in the narrative seems arbitrary. As for the title, All That Is—“All That Was” may be more like it. An elegiac tone rules, especially at the end.

The book is being praised for its “grace” (The New York Times Sunday Book Review), but an aloofness lies at the core of its main character, an indifference to the failure of his various relationships, perhaps because of his obvious ability to pick up beautiful women and bed them. After sex scenes, with a succession of different partners, Bowman declares each experience to be the most ecstatic of his life, despite the fact that for all their orgasmic detail, the scenes lack erotic charge. One event toward the end even shows Bowman to be manipulative, cruel in fact, which may account for a lack of sympathy for him.

The book does begin with an admirable, informative account of a troop ship moving toward Okinawa. The opening sentence, “All night in darkness the water sped past,” demonstrates the simplicity of diction and the unexpected word order of Salter’s deliberate, halting style. Wonderful sentences can be found: “The lunch had been one of those meals when the sound of a knife or fork on a table or a glass being set down only marks the silence,” but they tend to separate themselves from the text rather than advance characterization or plot. Bowman recalls loving memories of his mother, then adds, “all of the days, all of it.” In the next paragraph, the narrative switches to her remembrances of happy days, and then the omniscient author steps back in: “They were always close, mother and son, without end.” The last two last words provide the title of the book’s last chapter, though it’s not clear (to me) what they mean, or why the book ends where and how it does.

At one point the narrator remarks that “The power of the novel in the nation’s culture had weakened. It had happened gradually. It was something everyone recognized and ignored. All went on exactly as before, that was the beauty of it… Those who had been in it for some years… were like nails driven long ago into a tree that grew around them. They were part of it by now, embedded.” Memorable novels push through tangle, away from or defying commercial constraints and cultural conventions, and offer up compelling stories with universal appeal. Alas, All That Is does not seem to me to be one of them.

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