Near the end of “All That Is,” James Salter’s latest novel, an opinionated character (and one of the few female characters given a voice, but more on that later) comments to a young ingénue who has been spreading rumors about Saul Bellow, “Look, that simply isn’t done. You have to earn the right to betray an important writer.” I rather feel that as a twenty-year-old student I have not earned the right to criticize a novel by James Salter, the acclaimed novelist, short story writer, and screenwriter, that examines all that is in life as one gets older, but to the extent that my experience as a reader can inform others, I will say that I did not find this book to be enjoyable.
Salter’s first novel since 1979’s “Solo Faces,” “All That Is” is a scenic, meandering, and ultimately disappointing journey through forty years in the life of naval-officer-turned-editor Philip Bowman and various people in his life. Though Bowman anchors the story, vignettes about the lives of other characters punctuate the narrative and add dimension to a book with a flat protagonist. Each character has a few common attributes: a connection of some sort to Bowman, belonging to the upper-middle- or upper-class, and eventual disenchantment with their lives.
Bowman is not an especially inspiring protagonist: earnest, ambitious, and determined to create the life he has imagined, he works his way up at a publishing house and marries the first beautiful woman, Vivian, with whom he becomes seriously enamored. We learn exhaustive background information on Bowman’s family, his boss, his coworkers, his wife, his wife’s family, his friends — and the cultural and socio-economic dynamics constantly at play between characters.
There is a dated quality to the level of detail Salter provides that makes the narrative at times distracting and arduous to read. Subtle nuances, like the difference between the southern wealthy and the northern wealthy, are explained by describing at length characters’ lineages, incomes, and lifestyle choices, and somehow do not seem interesting or significant. Even utterly peripheral characters are given too much context; when a banker walks up to Bowman and his boss while they are out to dinner, Salter describes him with the following information: “He was one of three brothers who had gone into business together, made investments, and made a lot of money. The middle brother had died.” But back to the story…
Very quickly it is evident that Bowman has no business marrying someone he couldn’t hold a conversation with—however sexist, frustrating, and hackneyed the use of a beautiful-but-empty female character is. We see Bowman’s passionate affair in Europe with Enid, who later gets her own vignette, and his eventual divorce from Vivian. We meet elegant editors in different countries, and learn about publishing in the mid-20th century, a vastly different literary world of dinner parties, eccentric personalities, prestige, affairs, and glamour.
Woven in and out of the narrative of Bowman’s life are both short passages and long segments about other characters. We hear the touching love story of Eddins, one of Bowman’s colleagues, and his wife Dena. Later on, they return and we read the tragic and surprising ending of their love. Often these interludes came as welcome relief from Bowman’s slow, soul-searching stomp through life. The years go on and we see characters age and Bowman fall in and out of love, suffer heartbreak and break hearts, but never find fulfillment.
And now to my heaviest grievance with the book; the treatment of women and sex in this novel at first just rubbed me the wrong way, but eventually made me so angry that I had to put the book down and seethe to whomever was near me at that moment. I do understand that this is written by someone from ‘a different time’, and takes place in said ‘different time,’ but the sexist commentary and statements were not integrated into the rest of the writing. Much of it took place in the thoughts of the male characters — thoughts that Salter wrote in the 21st century — and thus felt disturbing, unnecessary, and unrelated to the time period of the book.
Women in this book are judged almost exclusively on their appearance, described as possessions in relation to male characters, and valued for their abilities to please the men. The frequent and detailed descriptions of sexual encounters are not well blended into the narrative, so the sudden use of explicit language feels vulgar and resonates as startling and unpleasant rather than natural descriptions of adult life. The sex in question itself does not address female sexuality, has a strong element of phallic worship, and in scenes where female characters are unambiguously violated, we are told, “Finally, not without relief, she gave in.”
“All That Is” is prefaced with the epigraph, “There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.” The novel does feel real at moments, especially when descriptions of the past ring true with intimate, textural details. This is undoubtedly due in large part to the fact that Salter, who was born in 1925 and served in the Air Force before finding success as a writer, was able to inject his own intimate knowledge into the story of Bowman.
Salter is a smooth, effortless writer and after reading “All That Is,” I do want to read his earlier works. His sentences are beautifully constructed, the scenes set vividly, and emotions portrayed masterfully: “In the parts yard, half-fenced, the bodies of wrecked cars and, further along the road, one that had been driven one night straight into a tree, the hollowed doors hanging open, the engine gone. He had come from that and it was now behind him. But it still existed, like the impression on a sheet of paper beneath the one you are writing on.”
And yet still, something about the narrative arc never quite felt cohesive enough to achieve the poignancy that seemed intended. Also frustrating is fact that the strongest emotion the lackluster ending provoked was happiness in saying farewell to Bowman. As the novel concludes, Bowman reflects on getting older, on lost love and lost youth, but his behavior is the same; he is propelled by his attraction to women without regard to the women in question, by his love of the phrase “I’m an editor,” and his respect for New York glamour and pretension. That is not to say that a fulfilling conclusion to a novel must show evolution or end on a positive note, but I was left still waiting for the emotional impact of nearly 300 pages depicting sad lives.
I will concede that perhaps my frustration is exactly what Salter aimed to communicate; like this novel, adult life is not tragic — it merely becomes depressing due to its predictable, base monotony.