“ All That Is” by James Salter (Knopf, 290 pages, $26.95)
James Salter’s first novel in 35 years opens on the deck of a destroyer during the battle for Okinawa in 1944, when young Lieutenant jg Philip Bowman observes his bunkmate Kimmel jump from the ship in confusion and fear.
These first few pages are brilliantly conceived, the bright morning filled with the puffs of anti-aircraft fire, Japanese kamikaze planes coming down like dark insects, everything confusion and noise; and the reader can be excused from thinking that ahead lies valor, martial excellence and a dash of old-fashioned story-telling.
Four decades later the story, if one can call it that, ends in a welling of regret.
Bowman leaves the war behind and takes up a literary editorship at Braden and Baum, a small publishing house in New York where, over the decades, he assembles a career (which, in the novel, takes place off-page), travels to Europe on company business, observes mid-century America at its zenith, cultivates numerous artistic and “old school” friendships and affairs, and even enters into an optimistically engineered marriage to a Virginia girl named Vivian, who hails from the wealthy “horsey set.”
The marriage fails conventionally and is never repeated. Nobody but Salter could write about failed intimacy so starkly:
She was in her nightgown, the one he liked with crossed straps in back. Almost as if unaware of him, she got into bed. He was filled with desire, as if they had met at a dance. He lay still for a moment in anticipation and then whispered to her. He put his hand on the swell of her hip. She was silent. He moved her nightgown up a little.
“Don’t,” she said.
Through the novel glide dozens of characters, a fellow editor named Neil Eddins, whose own gloriously happy marriage ends tragically when his wife is killed aboard a trans-continental train by a sudden electrical fire (a death that seems contrived); a London publisher named Bernard Wiberg whose wealth and success seem a counterpoint to Bowman’s own self-expectations; and Bowman’s mother, Beatrice, who raised him after his father abandoned the family.
Above all, though, Salter’s fiction is associated with sex and death, the two locked in virtuous combat – no relationship in the novel can survive the battle; there is no story worth telling without it.
As for sex, Bowman has more than his share. After Vivian, there are others. Bowman falls in love with the emotional brio of a warrior, suffering the traumas of love’s defeats with stunning regularity. After Vivian, he meets a London woman with whom he conducts a steadily diminishing long-distance affair; after that, he meets Christine in a New York taxi, a woman 20 years his junior who cheats on him with a Hampton’s carpenter her own age.
In one of the novel’s most desperate conceits, Christine sues Bowman to gain possession of a house he had purchased as a weekend retreat. The lost house, though a meaningful symbol of Bowman’s troubles, is simply not a credible event.
Even more disturbing, Bowman meets Christine’s young daughter Anet years later, seduces her in Paris, and leaves her alone and without money on the street, a revenge that is sadistic rather than just.
As for death, Salter treats it as another carnal experience, which, like love, looms portentously over all of existence, an unfathomable riddle with great poetic resonance.
In his great novel “Light Years,” Salter compared death to an underground river:
The underground river. The ceiling lowers, grows wet, the water rushes into darkness.
The air becomes damp and icy, the passage narrows. Light is lost here, sound; the current begins to flow beneath great, impassable slabs.
As Bowman ages, he “winds up” with Ann Hennesey, a secretary for Baum he had known years before. They are together, they travel, they wear their relationship like old clothes, without great passion, but with some comfort.
Bowman thinks often of death, but usually in pity, the idea of passing from this world to another, then on to the next, too fantastic to believe. He realizes, “ What if there should be no river but only the endless lines of unknown people, people absolutely without hope, as there had been in the war? He would be made to join them, to wait forever.”
At the end, Bowman thinks of the first voice he ever knew, his mother’s, recalling the bliss of being close to her as a child.
“All That Is” disappoints for a number of reasons. Yes, Salter’s characteristic breathy rhythms are intact, his fabulous spliced sentences and run-ons, his poetic nods to the great European architectural and epicurean splendors.
He remains athletically carnal, one might argue, to the exclusion of any insight into the real existence of women as human beings; there is also the whiff of snobbery; and, there is an almost polar coldness when carnality overwhelms compassion.
He is, in short, a great pleasure to read – his sentences bypass the heart and head and go straight to the blood, but we must always use the blood to nourish the heart.
Now in his 88th year, Salter is to be judged not by a single work, but by the great accretion of his work – “A Sport and a Pastime,” “Light Years,” “Solo Faces,” “Dusk”, the memoir “Burning the Days,” all adding up to a bravura performance.
His were the days when novels were important and people read them as if their lives depended on it.