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.