James Salter’s novel ‘All That Is’: looking back at a life
“All That Is,” the new novel by “writer’s writer’s writer” James Salter, traces the life of a man of Salter’s vintage and his encounters with lovers, partners, locales and the passage of time.
Seattle Times assistant features editor
‘All That Is’
by James Salter
Knopf, 304 pp., $26.95
The publication of James Salter’s new book has been a much-anticipated occasion. Recently called by The New Yorker “the writer’s writer’s writer,” he hasn’t written a novel in more than 30 years. And considering his advanced age, “All That Is” will likely be his last.
Fittingly, the book traces the life of a man of roughly Salter’s vintage, Philip Bowman, from his time in the Navy during World War II to a life as an editor at a quality publishing house in New York, through marriage and various love affairs.
At 87, Salter is one of the last writers of his generation (he went to high school with William F. Buckley and Jack Kerouac). And like him, “All that Is” is firmly rooted in midcentury America. Beginning with World War II, Bowman and his compatriots live through the ’50s, the sexual enlightenment of the ’60s as it was experienced by the mainstream, and into middle age in the ’70s and ’80s (though there is very little explicit reference to the culture at large to signify this passage).
There is a gauzy, drifting quality to both Bowman’s life and Salter’s style. The protagonist moves between partners and locales, from an early wife to a bewitching Greek lover, from Manhattan to the Hamptons to Paris. Bowman moves in and out of focus, as the story takes up the lives of the secondary characters for pages at a time. Interspersed are also what at first seem like non sequiturs, thumbnail sketches of the book’s bit players.
This technique creates an uneasy suspension of gravity and evanescence, a sense of Bowman’s life being at once deep and slight. “All That Is” seems to hint that though Philip Bowman is the protagonist, the book could have just as easily been about any of the other players, that all lives are of the same heft.
This is the way of the world, of course. To ourselves, our story is meaningful, even profound. But to the sweep of time and humanity, we are largely incidental. Depending on your perspective, this is either a mere matter of fact or a deeply melancholic notion — and Salter plays it both ways.
There are many erotic interludes. In Salter’s work, sex is a corporeal ecstasy and an existential salve. Though here, the carnal passages have a palpable sense of an older man’s nostalgia for the revelatory possibilities of sexual encounters.
Indeed, much of Bowman’s life feels considered in retrospect, even as he is first living it. At one point, now an esteemed editor, he finds himself at Manhattan’s P.J. Clarke’s, taking his own measure. “He ordered a beer,” Salter writes. “He felt himself floating in time. He could see himself in the mirror behind the bar, shadowed and silvery, as he had seen himself years before when he had just come to the city, young and ambitious with the dream of finding his place there and all that implied. He studied himself in the mirror. He was midway or a little past that depending on where you began counting. His real life had begun at eighteen, the life he now stood at the summit of.”
As with Salter’s other books, “All That Is” presents such a cogent portrait of restive loneliness that one feels implicated just by reading it, as if one’s own life is also subject to his vision. That is, the book feels very true, even if the lives of the characters are quite different from our own.