All That Is
2013, 304 pp.
James Salter, who died recently, was long known as an under-appreciated writer. Critics loved his books but they didn’t sell well. I hadn’t heard of him until this book came out in 2013 and, again, the critics loved it, but it went largely unnoticed. I’ve not read anything else by him, so I can’t tell you anything about his development or how his areas of interest and focus have changed or how age affected his point of view. I can tell you, though, that this is a hugely engaging, but oddly unsatisfying book.
First, the ‘engaging’ part. It’s wonderfully written; everything you may have heard about Salter being the master of the English sentence, is true. There’s nothing flashy or gaudy, though. In fact, those sentences are buffed to a Brancusi-smooth finish that makes them hugely informative, elegantly constructed and totally easy to read. I don’t think I’ve read anyone with such a huge economy of style. It’s a beautiful thing yet hardly noticeable.
Whole characters and their histories are displayed to us over the span of a couple of pages, characters who have little more than a walk-on role in the book are drawn with skill and sympathy and come to mind fully formed and real. The book is absolutely full of all kinds of ‘peripheral’ characters who, nonetheless, are the core of the charm of this book. There’s no plot, per se. It’s a telling of the life of a man, Philip Bowman, from his experiences in the Second World War to roughly the present day. Along the way we meet fellow sailors, colleagues, friends, family members and a series of love interests. The love interests seem to all fail — not in a sad-sack ‘guy can’t catch a break’ way. While relationships start very passionately they then seem to just gutter and snuff.
And this brings me to the second reckoning of this book: “unsatisfying”.
When we first meet Bowman he’s a likable, slightly prudish, pretty smart guy. And he tends to stay that way just about all of the time. Except for the ‘prudish’ part … there are some plainspoken and to-the-point descriptions of sex throughout the book. But there’s something oddly passive and cold about him, too. As I mentioned, his relationships seem to have a sexual passion but lack a human warmth. This despite the fact that he often seems to be proclaiming a deep love. There’s just something about it that I don’t buy. And I wonder why that is? Am I picking up on something in Salter’s character that feels shallow? Is it that Salter’s prose might be over-polished and lacking emotional grit? Or is this how Salter wishes to portray Bowman? Assuming that it’s the third one, I have to question the success of the portrayal. There’s a jarring act of cruel betrayal towards the end of the book, that seems out of character and at odds with expectations. And while Bowman is no milquetoast, his life is mostly passive. His marriage, his divorce, his friendships, his job all have a feeling of randomness rather that choice … even a possible ‘true love’, redemptive scenario towards the end, has a kind of recumbent inevitability to it.
So, I enjoyed this book in a lot of ways — it’s witty, it’s often wise, it’s a pleasure to be lulled by the language. It’s full of interesting and colorful characters, great stories … but I don’t get the central character. Or, rather, I don’t feel a moral core to the book.
In my thoughts, I’ve compared this book to Stoner by John Williams, but in that book there’s a heroic quality to the ordinariness of Stoner’s life: there’s a huge decency to the man. In All That Is there seems to be an amoral lack of real passion.