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 --- an Everyman for the generation that was just old enough to fight in World War II --- and, starting with his time as a naval officer in the Pacific (the book opens in 1944 with a scene aboard a battleship), traces his life to late middle age, with flashbacks to childhood and youth. Bowman is an outsider, brought up in Summit, New Jersey, near the city but remote from its glamour and bustle. At one point, he describes Manhattan as “a long necklace of light across the river. … It was like a dream, trying to imagine it all, the windows and entire floors that never went dark, the world you wanted to be in.”
Bowman’s vision of a future life is less about success or money per se than it is about belonging.He gets into Harvard (“shamelessly” using his wartime service to be admitted); he goes into book publishing, acquires a certain sophistication, and starts to penetrate the inside world of editors and publishers in the States and, especially, Europe.
Salter is acute and often witty about publishing. A couple of important characters --- Bowman’s boss in New York, Robert Baum, and the British publisher Bernard Wiberg --- represent elegant, aspirational lives and dubious ethics: “They were a literary house, Baum liked to say, but only through necessity. They were not going to turn down a best-seller as a matter of principle. The idea, he said, was to pay little and sell a truckful.” Wiberg, a German refugee, ultimately acquires a Sir before his name and publishes Nobel Prize winners: “He had, in fact, been a factor in their winning. ... Even excellence, he knew, had to be presold.”
Baum and Wiberg are more colorful than Bowman himself, who, for a protagonist, is something of a cipher. (The one time we see this passive fellow make a decision, it is to take morally despicable revenge on a former lover.) Mostly, things happen to him. His romantic relationships stem from random encounters in bars or at parties. The novel is not really “about” Bowman. It is about a particular time, a particular generation of men and their attempt to realize a larger, more heroic life. One important route to this dream is women. In them Bowman seeks not just sexual conquest --- though there is plenty of that, in explicit detail --- but a sort of completion.
Bowman goes through a marriage and a couple of lengthy liaisons, all of which crash and burn. The endings and betrayals always seem to take him by surprise. The beginnings of his relations with women, on the other hand, have the mystique of a sacred ritual. Enid Armour, cool and elegant and British, represents, to Bowman, “a privileged, distant world.” With his next lover, Christine Vassilaros, he is immediately “intoxicated”; he feels that he knows her “from the first word, the first look, the first embrace, the first fatal dance.” They go swimming in the ocean, dangerously, at night --- a stupendous scene, yet also ridiculously grandiose: “He felt like a god.”
There are plenty of women in the story, but Salter never really gets inside their heads; they remain objects of desire. The exception is Bowman’s doting mother, Beatrice. The chapter about her dementia and decline --- “Age doesn’t arrive slowly, it comes in a rush” --- is, I think, the best and most moving in the book.
By and large, though, this is a very male novel. There are many works of fiction that could have been written (and can be read with pleasure) by either gender. Among the authors who have been successful at inhabiting characters of the opposite sex, I have been persuaded most recently by Ian McEwan’s young wife in ON CHESIL BEACH and the Thomas Cromwell of Hilary Mantel in her WOLF HALLand BRING UP THE BODIES. And then there are books, like this one, that suggest universality (the title is not modest) but fall dismayingly short. I can imagine a man reading Salter’s novel and feeling thrillingly, painfully understood. The effect on me was quite different. 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.
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on April 26, 2013