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All That Is by James Salter

All That Is by James Salter is a novel that opens with scenes from Philip Bowman’s life as a sailor embroiled in the final battles of World War II in the Pacific. These scenes are graphic but not overdrawn, despite the mayhem.  The novel then adopts an elegiac tone--smooth, precise, unhurried--as it traces Bowman’s life as he rises to become a significant editor in a high-brow New York publishing house.  His marriage, to a vapid but pretty girl from the Virginia horse country (not far from where I’m writing this review), comes to an ending that is soft, not wounding.  The girl, Vivian, simply realizes that she and Philip don’t have much in common, aren’t right for one another, and Philip tends to agree.  He then proceeds, through the course of the book, to mark the stages of his life by gradually ascending the editorial ladder and becoming involved in passionate affairs with women who are just a little bit out of his reach; these women are married, or they are double-crossers, or they are stand-ins for whatever really burns in his heart.

Something does seem to burn in Bowman’s heart because he (aided by Salter’s solid prose) takes things seriously: the olive trees of Andalusia, the George Washington Bridge lit up at night, the rather endless descriptions of his lovemaking (which on occasion strays dangerously close to Hemingway in its self-satisfied romanticism and mastery).

But this is a funny kind of novel that really doesn’t deserve the over-the-top praise it receives on the dust jacket-- Tim O’Brien referring to “the highest artistry” and John Irving suggesting Salter’s “euphoria of prose” would have satisfied Shakespeare.

In fact, the novel wanders, inserts stray anecdotes that don’t seem to fit the narrative flow, blows up Bowman’s love life without much justification, and seems affectionately out-of-date, a loving anachronism, when it dwells on the 50s through the 90s in New York publishing--the point being, true enough, that publishing is in turmoil now, there are very few grand masters running publishing houses or editors who make literary decisions against the grain of market prospects.

Given that an entire life is being examined here, one has to step back a moment and contemplate the narcissism on display.  During the opening war scenes, yes, Bowman was involved in an undertaking that exceeded himself on behalf of others, but once these scenes have flashed past, the story becomes a portrait gallery of a man and his pals who display their most important energies in bed.  Bowman gets books published, God bless him, but he raises no children, undertakes no great project, overcomes no devastating setback (except at the hands of a duplicitous woman against whom he retaliates by bedding and abandoning her daughter), and is all tied up in  his knowledge of the good life. By this I mean knowing the restaurants and cafes and hotels of Paris, London, Spain, and New York City and a fair stretch of the beautiful landscape up the Hudson River from New York.  These are the places where people of sensibility and appeal drink together, judge one another, seduce one another, and have their lyrical moments of revelation watching the snow fall or the sun rise or the sea go quiet from waves to gentle swells.

Some months ago I went to a memorial service for a man like Bowman.  He was a bon vivant. He had pals. He could get you tickets anywhere at any time.  I didn’t know the guy that well, and I only went to the service because I had no idea how important folks in Washington took him to be--I didn’t feel his family deserved a poor turn-out, in other words. Was I ever mistaken.  A very large hall was cram packed.  This guy had been fun, fun, fun.  He’d gotten away with everything, what a splendid bad boy with a by-line he’d been.  His admirers really loved him and spoke wonderfully about him.

I published a piece afterward called “Playing the Fool” in which I tried to capture the essence of a person who is a brilliant entertainer, someone smart enough to taunt King Lear if necessary.  I think that’s about who this fellow was, and I don’t really mean it as any kind of insult.  Fools aren’t dummies; and since most of us aren’t kings, we often dote on them, repeat their witticisms and bits of wisdom, and cry real tears when they leave us.

My sense is that James Salter is a serious man and accomplished writer who, at the end of his life, has now written a book saying goodbye to the best of times.  This is his Moveable Feast, if you will, and my sense also is that a band of literary friends are prepared to defend him to the death.  He’s no fool; he’s more of a duke, a senior counselor, in the literary courts of the last four decades, and his pals wouldn’t think of sending him off without a rousing “Hurrah!”

Okay, but writing about writing focuses on the writing, not the man, or it should. This particular novel isn’t as good as the publicists and loyalists have made it seem to be.  It’s pleasurable to read, but that narcissism gnaws at me, likewise the general notion that the literary life is, at its best, a kind of fascinating glide path, a trip through the clouds, with very few storms.  

For more of my comments on contemporary writing, see Tuppence Reviews (Kindle.)