All That Is by James Salter

All That Is was my introduction to James Salter. I suppose the ultimate worth test of any novel, upon finishing it, is do I want to read another one of his books? The answer to this is, yes. Yes but not in a mad hurry of love.

His prose is almost like underwriting – sketched impressions that flit with a surprising dexterity over huge expanses of time and from one character’s perspective to another. Often he enters the point of view of sideshow characters for a moment, offers an anecdote or a vignette of social commentary, and then drops them. The surprise is, for the most part, he makes this eccentric head hopping work.  But essentially this novel is about Philip Bowman, a young naval officer during WW2 when we first meet him who becomes an editor at a New York publishing house.

Philip Bowman is in love with infatuation. Emotionally he doesn’t appear to get beyond it as an ideal. He’s like a man permanently in the grip of male menopause. Women to him are objects of beauty, conveyors of moments of heightened physical intimacy. He gets through half a dozen in the novel and the overriding sense is that he can barely tell them apart. He’s a man remembering women as conquest and effect. It appears he can only dwell happily in idyllic realms. As a result of which all his attempts to build a home and forge a lasting relationship are thwarted. The novel is essentially about his sexual conquests, an attempt to highlight the regenerating nature of physical intimacy. Except it’s a bit hollow as a life affirming coda, as this is a routine of recharging batteries that might be achieved through frequent visits to call girls.

I can see why Salter has never received the plaudits of a Bellow, Delillo or Roth. On the evidence of this novel he doesn’t get his hands dirty as a writer. He doesn’t put his head under the water. We’re skimming over surfaces with Salter, beautifully depicted surfaces but there’s often the feeling of missing dimensions in his prose.  For example we’re never quite sure if Salter perceives the egotistical superficiality of his central character’s demands of women. Which is why, I suppose, he’s been accused of misogyny in some quarters. In his late eighties James Salter has lived through decades in which sexual politics have been revolutionised so it’s perhaps no wonder that at times he can appear mired in a more macho and entitled male mind-set but one of the fascinating subtexts of this novel is to show us, on the one hand, how much things have changed in the male/female dynamic and, on the other hand, how little they’ve changed.

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