All That Is, by James Salter

by

Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

James Salter is an author who has always perplexed me (that’s a backhand way of alluding to why this review promised for May 5 does not appear until May 23). His backlist is relatively slim — five novels before All That Is, all published prior to 1979 (although a couple were reissued with revisions in the late 1990s). I was first introduced to him about a decade back when a reading friend gave me a copy of Light Years. I raced through it, was impressed and immediately ordered three of the other four (I have yet to read The Arm of Flesh, republished as Cassada).

My problems with Salter started with Light Years and continued with the other three. Again, I read them all quickly — Salter maintains a clear narrative stream and his prose is very reader-friendly, formally precise with nary a word wasted, the kind of writing I adore. In every case, his characters were flawed but interesting, the kind of people whom one normally loves to find in novels. Alas, also in every case, there was a time-delayed reaction: a week after finishing the novel, I came to the same crash landing. While I could certainly remember some scenes very vividly, I would have had trouble telling you just what the novel was about.

I have been pondering this reaction for some years now (I can’t recall any other author who has produced it for me), because the blogging world discovered Salter a few years back and readers whom I respect don’t hesitate to sing his praises. (You can find enthusiastic reviews of all five novels prior to All That Is from John Self at the Asylum here.) So when I heard that a new novel (it is probably final as well — Salter is now 87), the first in more than 30 years, was due for publication, I resolved to treat it differently. I would read it slowly and, if necessary, plan on reading it twice.

I half met that resolve. My first read was deliberate, but, typical of my reaction to Salter, I thought I’d “got” it and scheduled the May 5 review — discovering only when I tried to write it that I did not know what to say. I obviously took time with the reread but, a week after finishing it, still face the dilemma of trying to say what the novel is really about.

On the surface, it is easy: All That Is is the adult life story of Philip Bowman. He is introduced as a young naval officer with the U.S. Pacific fleet in the late years of WWII, as it prepares to land in Japan. When he returns home, he heads off to college and soon after graudation lands a job as an editor with a prestigious literary book publisher in New York, a job he will hold for the rest of his life. He meets a Virginia belle in a New York bar (not Clarkes’, but he was on his way there), soon marries her, almost as soon they divorce. For the rest of his life, Bowman (always comfortable with his work) has a series of extended monogamous affairs, occasionally leaves the city for summers or even a year in the Hamptons or upstate New York. The end.

Okay, that is a bit harsh. For starters, I quite liked Philip Bowman. Salter’s chapter on his navy experience is brief, so I’ll skip that. Here’s the opening to his re-introduction to the non-military U.S. world:

Harvard did not accept him. It was his first choice, but his application was turned down, they did not accept transfer students, their letter informed him. In response he sat down and wrote a carefully composed reply mentioning by name the famed professors he hoped to study under, whose knowledge and authority had no equal, and at the same time portraying himself as a young man who should not be penalized for having gone off to war. Shameless as it was, the letter succeeded.

In the fall of 1946 at Harvard he was an outsider, a year or two older than his classmates but seen as having a kind of strength of character — he’d been in the war, his life was more real because of it. He was respected and also lucky in several ways, chief among them his roommate with whom he struck it off immediately. Malcolm Pearson was from a well-to-do family. He was tall, intelligent, and mumbling, only occasionally was Bowman able to make out what he was saying, but gradually he became accustomed and could hear. Pearson treated his expensive clothing with a lordly disdain and seemed rarely to go to meals. He was majoring in history with the vague idea of becoming a professor, anything to displease his father and distance himself from the building supplies business.

That longish excerpt is an excellent illustration of Salter’s voice. It has a “journalistic” quality to it (coming from me that is a compliment), not in the sense that the author uses reporter’s language but rather that he honors sound news reporting principles. Facts are presented without bias or emotion, background is acknowledged and where required suitably filled in. Conciseness, clarity and directness are ever-present.

As a book reader and former editor (albeit in the news not book business), I found Bowman’s entry into the publishing business and Salter’s careful portrayal of that world both intriguing and rewarding. The novelist has been in it for more than half a century: he not only knows what it is like, he knows what it was like and is a sound enough observer that he can draw effective parallels and contrasts between the two.

While the “business” side of the story continues through the novel, as it progresses the book focuses more and more on Philip’s personal relationships. He is charming (perhaps “non-threatening” would be a more accurate assessment) in his own way and has enough “intrigue” to his character that women are attracted to him. He falls head over heels for Vivian (and that story is well told) but the marriage quickly loses its appeal for both of them and they split — he is urban, she’s a born-and-bred rich country lady. The lesson that Bowman takes from that first love will influence the rest of his life: while he takes to women (and they to him) easily, he is very careful to limit his emotional engagement in any relationship. That inevitably means a relatively quick end, sometimes initiated by him, sometimes the woman. In his latter years, that trait means the relationships have a quality of degeneration to them.

If I was to attempt an explanation for my own “non-engaged” reaction to Salter, I think it would come down to that: Bowman’s lack of emotional investment in his life plays out with this reader in the form of an equal lack of engagement in his story. Despite quite liking him (as acknowledged above) by halfway through the book I knew him as well as I did at the end. Bowman is not a creature who has a plan for his life: rather his talents are such that he is frequently presented with options (usually quite positive ones) and, without much thought, he chooses the path of least resistance. We follow with him along that fork of the road for a while until problems inevitably arise — it always seems that not long after, another set of attractive choices presents itself. While he faces some negative consequences along the way, none of them last for long.

All of which means that a week after finishing a second reading of All That Is (yes, that means a week of procrastination before attempting this review) I remember it as a set of artist’s studies, designed to eventually result in a major canvas. Many of the studies were excellent, only a few were less than good — but the final “canvas”, while consistent and coherent, is a series of scenes, not a unified work.

I’ll underline again that many readers are more positive about Salter than I am (do check out those John Self reviews). I certainly don’t find him difficult or unpleasant to read and in a few years may make another effort with one of those earlier works. For now, however, he is an author whom I just don’t seem to get — I can understand that people see he is good, I just can’t figure out why.

19 Responses to “All That Is, by James Salter”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    I know exactly what you mean Kevin by that lack of engagement (not that I’ve read this author). Was this novel a downer? I dislike reading about passive characters. Would you say that Bowman is passive? Sounds like it.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      It was not a downer, although I’ll admit my liking for Bowman got strained during the latter parts. “Passive” is close, but not quite the right word — “selective” is probably closer.

      I also think I should point to the title as helpful. All That Is is a statement, but hardly an active one — in a sense, that might be what Salter is trying to capture here.

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  2. dovegreyreader Says:

    Kevin, thank you for this….I was beginning to worry about your silence! There is a huge ground swell of publicity and love for James Salter here in the UK at the moment verging on adulation, all sufficient to stall me when it comes to picking up the book and trying to read it (twice started, twice stopped) . I am going to set it aside and wait for the hue and cry to die down before I try again, but will have your (as always) clear and cogent thoughts in mind when I do.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Sorry about not alerting people about the delay — I kept meaning to get started on it and then kept finding reasons not to. And I was preoccupied enough by the book, that I didn’t feel like just setting the whole thing aside for a while and moving on to something else. I’ll also admit that the arrival of spring (finally!) also had an impact — the fact we are having a wonderful, intense spring shower today may have been what finally motivated me to sit down at the keyboard.

      If you have started and stopped it twice, I suspect it may not be the book for you either. Lord knows, there are plenty of positive reviews of it on both sides of the Atlantic for people to consider.

      The last time something like this happened with me was Wolf Hall, but in that case it was reading the book, rather than developing an opinion on it, that was my frustration.

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  3. anokatony Says:

    I still am on the fence on this one. I read “Light Years”, liked it, but it didn’t leave much of an impression. Instead of reading :”All That Is”, I decided to read “Constellation of Vital Phenomena” for my US novel, and I’m happy I did.

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  4. Guy Savage Says:

    Thanks Kevin. Think I’ll pass.

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  5. Guy Savage Says:

    Quote:
    “Yet in recent years I have witnessed a new phenomenon among filmgoers, especially those considered intelligent and perceptive. I have a name for this phenomenon: the Instant White-out. People are closeted in cozy darkness; they turn off their mobile phones and willingly give themselves, for ninety minutes or two hours, to a new film that got a fourstar rating in the newspaper. They follow the pictures and the plot, understand what is spoken either in the original tongue or via dubbing or subtitles, enjoy lush locations and clever scenes, and even if they find the story superficial or preposterous, it is not enough to pry them from their seats and make them leave the theatre in the middle of the show.
    But something strange happens. After a short while, a week or two, sometimes even less, the film is whitened out, erased, as if it never happened. They can’t remember its name, or who the actors were, or the plot. The movie fades into the darkness of the movie house, and what remains is at most a ticket stub left accidentally in one’s pocket.”

    The Retrospective by A. B. Yehoshua

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      An intriguing comment — I can certainly think of films or television episodes that have done the same for me. My reaction to this novel was somewhat different — I remember some episodes very well (and will). I have to confess I would have to look up more than one of his earlier ones for a reminder of what they were about. Again, I think that simply says more about my reaction than it does the quality of the books themselves.

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  6. Judy Gardner Says:

    I too have been waiting to read your comments and would have enjoyed sharing them in my store book club. I read Light Years in the 1980’s and remembered it fondly. Somehow it had an atmosphere that’s stayed and haunted me. When it returned to stock I decided it was time to re-read in my book group. The discussion was interesting. The New Yorker had a most interesting article recently on Salter as did many others sources on the Internet. In reading All That Is before publication I found I felt as you did. Couldn’t quite decide what it meant to me but your review catches that sense very well. Salter does seem to have a devoted audience and I’m not sorry to encounter him again.

    An aside I would love to read your comments about Train Dreams although you decided not to read it. I feel it is quite remarkable.

    Thank you for your contribution to my intense reading pleasure

    Judy Gardner

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      You raise a good point in referencing Salter’s ability to create atmosphere — it is one of the things that he does best. I wonder whether the fact that he is so good at it is an influence in my difficulty in putting the “whole” book together because I remember some specific scenes or episodes so well.

      As for Train Dreams, it is simply a case of too many books for the time available.

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  7. gaskella Says:

    i’ve just read this – my first Salter, I didn’t know he was so old and so revered. I admit I was underwhelmed – I loved the precise language and his no hostages approach to dialogue, but I found Bowman to be lacking in charisma, too ordinary, for the book to engage me as much as the writing and blurb promised. So I agree totally with you.

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  8. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’ve read two Salters, The Hunters (superb, I agree entirely with John Self’s review of it) and A Sport and a Pastime (which I blogged at mine). I think he’s a remarkable writer. In a way he fills the same niche for me as Colm Toibin – a writer who speaks of subjects that don’t particularly interest me but with such talent that I don’t care and love him anyway.

    That said, everything I’ve heard about this one is that it’s not one of his best. Personally I’d suggest that if you do give him another shot you try something quite different such as The Hunters, which you might well enjoy.

    Anyway, great review as ever, but given how many of his major works I’ve yet to read this is definitely on the completist pile for me. For anyone new (or even relatively new) to Salter my impression is that one should turn to the back catalogue rather than the current release.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I read The Hunters and had my usual Salter problems — in fact, had to look up a review to remind me what it was about when I was preparing to write this one.

      I would not try to dissuade someone who has not read Salter from starting with this one. In fact, I think there probably is a bit more “story” for those who don’t know his work to latch onto (mainly the publishing business) than is present in some of the others, although that may just be that they have faded in my memory.

      I suspect part of my problem with him may be one that I sometimes have with “writers’ writers” — while I’m very impressed with the perfection of the prose while reading (and there is no doubt Salter is an incredible craftsman) it is does not stay with me very well.

      Interesting that you should raise the comparison with Toibin (who is a favorite of mine as well). When reading this one, I thought a few times about Sebastian Barry. For me, he is another author whose style often eclipses the story and ultimately leaves me as a reader frustrated.

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      • Max Cairnduff Says:

        Fair enough. In all honesty, if you don’t like The Hunters I don’t think Salter will ever really speak to you. He is as you say very much a writer’s writer, and it’s all about the craft really. From what I’ve read I’d say he’s perhaps a rather cold writer, masterful in execution but not warm.

        Hopefully that makes sense anyway, I know what I’m trying to say but I could use a little Salter myself right now to get it across.

        All that said, I’ve yet to hear anyone seriously praise this one, well, anyone I rate anyway. Did James Wood cover it? My impression is of a book people want to like, more than people actually like.

        Toibin marries effortless style to tremendous warmth, whatever I may mean by warmth. I think he’s one of our best writers. Interesting comment on Barry. I wonder if I’ll find that when I get to him.

        I do know what you mean about how style can frustrate. It doesn’t do that for me with Salter, but it has with other writers (Lawrence Norfolk say). It’s always interesting too how books stand up in memory. I was reading John Self’s review of Money today, and was surprised how much of it I remembered, and how fondly. It’s the great test of a book in a way, how it stands up not as one reads it but a month later, a year later, a decade later.

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  9. Dr. Fraud Says:

    When he cruelly rejects the daughter of a former lover I was puzelled. What is the point of the negativity? It is facile to make inferences, but I am curious what others make of this episode, which
    contrasts so with the more or less neutral previous tone.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      My take on Philip’s affair with the daughter was that it was a deliberate attempt to get back at her mother. I also think that Salter was using that to show that, at least in some aspects, Philip is a totally pathetic character. For those who were concerned by the sexism of the novel (and I count myself on the fringes of that group) it was even more distasteful.

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