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 about.com 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"

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 by Dr. Hunter S. Thomson (Straight Arrow Books, 1973 first printing)


This is a first hardcover edition of Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72. I think this is arguably Thompson's most important book, as it expands the gonzo approach of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas into the political realm, a place he remained throughout the rest of his career. All of the subsequent "Gonzo Papers" books lived in this world: they were less about the drugs and more about politics and contemporary culture.

This was published in 1973 by Straight Arrow Books (a short-lived publisher associated with Rolling Stone that compiled a number of long-form, serialized articles) and was illustrated by the great Ralph Steadman. (curiously, Straight Arrow also published some books by Oscar Zeta Acosta -- "Dr. Gonzo" of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas fame).


The book is in decent condition. While there are a lot of losses around the edge of the jacket, it still boasts a tight binding (althought slightly tilted) with no damages or marks visible to the actual book.



My biggest woe is the sun damage on the spine; compare the colors of the skull on the spine to those on the cover. It's surprisingly tough to find old books that have vibrant jackets. Tangentially related: I've been on the hunt for a 1st/1st of Thomas Pynchon's V. and am shocked at how many sun-faded spines are out there! Sometimes I think someone with the same tastes as me, fifty years ago, had a library/solarium combo...

Also worth a note: the mythical Screwjack "Cyclops Owl" makes an appearance in the book's front matter. Those interested can check out the comments thread here for a bit of a discussion on the beast.


Currently reading:
The Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen

Currently listening to:
"Loin des Hommes" by Nick Cave & Warren Ellis

Sunday, June 7, 2015

William T. Vollmann, The Convict Bird (hand-bound first book from 1987, CoTangent Press)


The Convict Bird is William T. Vollmann’s first book, self-published in 1987 by his own CoTangent Press. The book was presented in an edition of 100 signed and numbered copies, 10 of which were a collaborative production between Vollmann and sculptor Matt Heckert featuring a binding of studded black steel, hinges, and a padlock. Per the colophon, these 10 steel-editions featured a bookmark made from a street prostitute’s hair.


This is one of the 90 regular editions, featuring a hand-sewn binding. My copy, mysteriously, is unsigned, although the edition calls for it. Maybe if Vollmann’s The Dying Grass tour sends him out to New York I can bring it to him.

The book itself is about a friend of Vollmann’s serving a life sentence in prison and is written in the manner of a children’s rhyme. It’s illustrated with Vollmann’s drawings and, at only sixteen pages, is a deeply eerie piece. Some further research reveals that Vollmann’s friend is Veronica Compton, a “groupie” of The Hillside Strangler duo. Compton formed an intimate relationship with one of the killers, Kenneth Bianchi, while he was behind bars. Bianchi convinced Compton to try and murder someone in the style of The Hillside Strangler in an effort to convince authorities that the real killers will still at large. Compton failed, and her attempted copycat murder put her behind bars.


Here’s a quote from Vollmann on the book’s creation:


The Convict Bird is about a friend of mine who is serving a life sentence in prison. I did it partly to raise a little bit of money for her, which I guess goes against this fallacy that somehow you can help people with books. I knew no one else would publish this poem in the way I wanted it to be published, so I decided I should do it myself. And since I was going to do it myself, I decided might as well go whole hog and make it exactly the way I wanted it.”


Currently reading:
The Wright Brothers, David McCullough

Currently listening to:
Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, Loin des Hommes