Saturday, June 20, 2015

Review: All That Is by James Salter (1925-2015)

James Salter died today at age 90. I think he might be one of the most under-read and under-decorated greats of American literature. Like many other readers, I'm still slowly discovering him, but find that everything I've read has been nearly perfect.

I first read Salter a few years ago with his outstanding book All That Is. I had written a review for in 2013 but it seems it's been scrubbed from their site now that they're no longer updating. I figure I'd post it here: if anyone opposes, please let me know and I'll remove it. (The image, above, is from a signed first edition of Salter's memoir, Burning The Days.)

All That Is by James Salter
Knopf, April 2013
Review by Jeff Alford

All That Is, James Salter’s first novel in thirty-five years, follows the life of Philip Bowman through the middle decades of twentieth-century America. When the novel opens, Bowman is a junior naval officer in World War II amidst some action in the Pacific. The novel expands episodically: we next see Bowman a returned hero in New Jersey, then studying at Harvard, and eventually in Manhattan, getting his foot in the door of a publishing house. Bowman consistently takes what he wants when he wants, from his career to the women he sleeps with. He’s an unusual hero to follow, as Bowman’s American Dream is whatever the best thing is in front of him. This is a masterful work of subtle complexity: Philip Bowman is a difficult, new mind in a familiar trajectory, finely tuned with deficiencies most authors would overlook.

All That Is embraces Bowman’s philosophy and develops his story slowly through short, beautifully written chapters. Each episode could easily be presented as a short story and builds throughout the novel into a layered, achingly complex character portrait. Salter often drifts his spotlight from Bowman to one of the tertiary characters in All That Is, and their inclusion reveals additional complexities to Bowman’s character. In the company of the rest of the cast of All That Is it becomes clear what Bowman’s lacking: remorse, nostalgia, and wonder for the future. All he cares about is the man he is and if that man can continue to take what he decides is his. About halfway through the novel, Salter writes of one of Bowman’s many trysts:

“…in Spain with a woman who had given him the feeling of utter supremacy. He had crossed some line… He saw himself now to be another kind of man, the kind he had hoped, fully a man, used to the wonder.”

Although All That Is is predominantly driven by Bowman’s story, it’s fascinating to step back and attempt to build a more conceptual understanding of Salter’s novel. Bowman’s character is classically confident and strangely unpredictable: chapters open that reveal him either on a plane, suddenly en route to Paris, or in the arms of a new mistress. Salter’s tempering of Bowman makes it uncomfortably clear how many of these movements are mistakes. For example, we watch as Bowman falls for a married woman:

“He had met her by chance…. She was married, she had said, but that was understandable – at a certain point in life, it seemed everyone was. At a certain point also you began to feel that you knew everyone, there was no one new, and you were going to spend the rest of your life among familiar people, women especially.”

We, as readers, see Bowman’s decisions to be just as poorly planned as his previous infidelities: he vies for the unattainable because he’s already tried his luck with the immediate vicinity. But somehow Bowman is oblivious to his history of social and romantic carelessness. And, it’s with this in mind that one can return to the title of Salter’s novel and ruminate on the author’s carefully succinct, properly tensed wording. Bowman lives entirely in the present and allows no past regrets or ambitious aspirations to distract his day-seizing vivre.

Salter’s handling of eroticism in All That Is is an extension of this hedonistic slant but is often executed at the expense of the reader’s enjoyment. Bowman’s actions between the sheets are in step with the brash decisions he makes outside the bedroom and are justifiably, frustratingly in character. One could stretch a connection from Bowman to Rabbit Angstrom or Nathan Zuckerman, but their sexual exploits are much more affirmative and often celebratory than Bowman’s empty, mirthless lovelife. All That Is could even be read an experiment in the anti-Roth, or anti-Updike: what happens when the glory days are removed from the mid-century American male’s identity? It seems only success is left, devoid of any gratification.

Having only read about four of his books, I can say that Salter was one of the best. 90 years is a long haul but it's sad to see him go.

Currently reading:
The Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen

Currently listening to:
Kamasi Washington, "The Epic"

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