James Salter’s new novel, All That Is – his first in thirty-four years – is a masterpiece.
At the moment, the span of years between Salter’s books has got people interested in him. In a recent New Yorker profile, Nick Paumgarten follows Salter’s full life story, from his days as a fighter pilot in the Korean War up till now, as an aged novelist, eighty-seven-years-old. Paumgarten tries to get at why Salter isn’t famous, and suggests that he is a tier above even a so-called “writer’s writer” – a “writer’s writer’s writer” – as John Ashbery once said of Elizabeth Bishop.
In an interview on NPR, Arun Roth questions Salter about his lack of fame, concluding the interview by saying, “You’ve expressed for some time a certain type of skepticism about the staying power of your work…now you’re 87 and your books are being read and embraced…have you begun to feel that you’ll be an influence for a long time?”
“It would be vanity to answer that question,” Salter replies. “I think if you have anything that’s read 20 years after your death, you’ve accomplished something considerable. Beyond that, it’s impossible to say.”
Even in conversation, there’s a succinct beauty to his words.
Many of his followers know and love Salter for his sentences, their stark power of observation and lyricism. According to the New Yorker profile, Salter wrote All That Is in the hopes that people would stop dog-earring the pages of his books, and become more immersed in his characters and plot than the dance of his language.
With All That Is, he has accomplished this mission, if it was in fact one of the goals he set out. The book follows characters through their lives with that classic quality of observation he’s known so well for, while also packing unexpected punches. At the end of the book the final punch is the hardest, the most astonishing to see unfold.
All That Is opens in the deep cabins of a ship sailing towards Japan in the Second World War: “All night in darkness the water sped past. In tier on tier of iron bunks below deck, silent, six deep, lay hundreds of men, many faceup with their eyes still open though it was near morning.” Three pages pass before zooming in on a single character. The first we meet is Philip Bowman, looking out at the sea.
Bowman is the man we follow from this day at the end of the Second World War until his old age. Once home from war, “not exactly a hero,” he says, his family welcomes him back warmly – his mother and an uncle and aunt who helped raise him. His father left when he was young.
Bowman is Manhattan-born and educated at Harvard after the war – but he’s an outsider at Harvard, because “he’d been in the war, his life was more real because of it.” After he graduates, he makes his way into a publishing job in New York. It’s a time when publishing takes place in small family-run houses, and when writers and their publishers stay up late into the night, talking and drinking.
On a lunch break one day Bowman meets Vivian, an affluent horse-riding girl from Virginia. “The Virginia of Vivian Amussen was Anglo, privileged, and inbred.” Bowman is outside her world, too, but he falls in love and makes her his wife.
The relationship seems airy and unreal, and it is – nothing to build a marriage on. But the moment when Vivian ends it, in an offhanded letter early in the book, creates the beginning of true sympathy for Bowman. He’s no good at love. Not at twenty-eight, not at sixty-eight.
While Bowman stays steadily at the center of the novel, Salter gives the same consideration and care to all the characters who enter – from those standing in a doorway on the sidelines of a scene to the people Bowman makes an acquaintance with throughout his life: other publishers, his mother, Vivian’s mother and father, the wives of other men, and the innumerable women he falls in and out of love with. It’s one of Salter’s most unusual and pleasing skills as a writer: you get the sense he knows the lives of everyone, that he could sum even you up in a glance.
Bowman climbs the ranks of publishing and travels to London and Paris, he dines in New York, he meets writers. He has an intense affair with an older British man’s wife, and the sex scenes Salter describes show off those dog-ear worthy sentences of his.
Finally, many years older and back in New York, Bowman meets Christine in a taxi they happen to share going home from the airport one night. “In the light from oncoming cars he could see her dark hair and lipstick that made him take her for Greek. The expressway paralleled Manhattan, which was like a long necklace of light across the river.” With Christine, it seems he has finally found a relationship that will stick – though there are of course subtle signs against it.
After the first time they sleep together: “He was lying with a smooth-limbed woman who had been stolen from her husband. She was now his, they were in life together. He was thrilled by it. It fit his character, the daring lover, something he knew he was not.”
In the NPR interview, Arun Roth asks Salter if he believes – as Bowman says he believes at the end of the book, after the greatest betrayal in his life – that the power of the novel in our nation’s culture has diminished.
Salter replies in a careful and guarded way. “My feelings [about the state of the novel] are more sentimental than rational…the culture is what it is. It reforms itself. It’s freshened by certain things, it is polluted by other things.”This answer considers, as Salter always considers in his work, that sentimentality should not be a part of understanding the trajectory of anything – be it the state of the novel, the events in a character’s life, or his life, after all.