James Salter is 87, and revered in haute literary circles. Never has the cliché “a writer’s writer” seemed so apt. His book DUSK AND OTHER STORIES won the PEN/Faulkner award, and ALL THAT IS, his first full-length fiction since 1979, is presented with jacket blurbs from the likes of John Banville, Tim O’Brien, Julian Barnes and John Irving --- themselves no slouches in the novelist-as-icon department. Their encomiums use words like masterpiece and compare Salter’s language to Shakespeare’s. He has been profiled in The Paris Review and, just the other week, The New Yorker.
Am I intimidated? Yes. But a bit irritated, too, as if I should judge the gift by the prestigious wrapping it comes in.
The book contains masterful writing, but I’m not sure it’s a successful novel. It seems to me rather a series of scenes without a lot of connective tissue. The focus is either near or far; if it were a film, there would be close-ups and long shots and no middle distance. Could this writer, with his gift for short fiction, have become impatient with the sustained demands of a novel?
Perhaps. Salter violates every writing-workshop dictum I can think of --- a strategy, to be sure, rather than a lapse --- jumping from one point of view to another with disorienting frequency; returning to minor characters several chapters after the reader has met them (often I couldn’t remember who they were); “telling” rather than “showing” (nearly every character is given copious amounts of biography the minute he or she appears; there are also great swaths of cultural/social/historical observation plonked down in the middle of the narrative).
Rule-breaking can be refreshing, but in this case it slows the forward movement of the novel almost to a standstill. Exquisite as the prose is (spare, haunting, understated, gorgeous), whenever I left off reading, I was in no great hurry to return.
"With its chilly marble women, simultaneously worshiped and dismissed, ALL THAT IS recalls an era of sexual politics that I would prefer not to relive, even in the pages of a book."
ALL THAT IS is set in the (fairly) recent past. Salter takes one Philip Bowman ---