Jun 032013
Martin Reviews: All That IsAll That Is by James Salter
Published by Knopf on Apr 2, 2013
Genres: Adult, Historical fiction
Find the book: Amazon, Goodreads

An extraordinary literary event, a major new novel by the PEN/Faulkner winner and acclaimed master: a sweeping, seductive, deeply moving story set in the years after World War II.

From his experiences as a young naval officer in battles off Okinawa, Philip Bowman returns to America and finds a position as a book editor. It is a time when publishing is still largely a private affair—a scattered family of small houses here and in Europe—a time of gatherings in fabled apartments and conversations that continue long into the night. In this world of dinners, deals, and literary careers, Bowman finds that he fits in perfectly. But despite his success, what eludes him is love. His first marriage goes bad, another fails to happen, and finally he meets a woman who enthralls him—before setting him on a course he could never have imagined for himself.

Romantic and haunting, All That Is explores a life unfolding in a world on the brink of change. It is a dazzling, sometimes devastating labyrinth of love and ambition, a fiercely intimate account of the great shocks and grand pleasures of being alive.

Women, booze and solipsism are recurring themes in James Salter’s historically sprawling and superbly written new novel, All That Is (Alfred A. Knopf.) His first novel, The Hunter (1957), was an account of Korean War jet fighter pilots, made the following year into a movie staring Robert Mitchum. It’s been over thirty years since Salter’s last novel, Solo Faces (1979), and one can only wonder if this is the closing work by the eighty-seven-year-old author, filmmaker and poet.

The book opens in the summer of 1944 with naval navigation officer, Philip Bowman, waiting pensively on his ship before the U.S. assault on Okinawa. His vessel is set upon by kamikazes, but Bowman survives the attack and at the end of the war he returns home to the East Coast where he begins school at Harvard. After graduation he moves to New York City where he finds work as a junior editor in a small literary publishing house. Soon he meets a young woman named Vivian Amussen, a Virginia aristocrat of sorts, and they marry and move into a New York City apartment. After a while, like all of Bowman’s romances, their relationship deteriorates. A London publisher’s book fair and a juicy tryst between Bowman and an inviting Englishwoman marks the end of his marriage and Bowman and Vivian soon divorce.

And so goes the narrative…one after another, Bowman falls in and then out of love, never quite her fault and never quite his, and this dizzying and sometimes hypnotic pattern of lust and decline permeates this mostly cheerless protagonist’s life. By the mid-1980s, the final decade covered in this book, Philip Bowman is surprisingly unchanged. Sexually fit yet emotionally withered, lust, liquor and literature are still his passions; any means by which to distract and dull philosophical reflection. Others in Bowman’s orbit sometimes find successful relationships—his boss’s marriage seems viable—but these successes always harbor some inner defect: couples are pathologically dependent on one another or there is some gross inequity of power that binds them together. The only genuine relationship, in Salter’s estimation, seems to occur between mother and child; anything else is a masquerade or contrivance.

This book, with its laconic and detached anti-hero, seemed out of place today. It would be more at home on a shelf next to Nathanael West, Ernest Hemingway or Henry Miller, or on a publisher’s list from the 1930’s or 1940’s. These are authors that Salter surely read when he came of age in pre-beat poet America and one wonders if these luminaries, these icons of masculine existentialism, have seared their literary candescence into Salter’s unconscious.

There is poetry in this novel. There are moving descriptions of humans in graceful acts, the collapse of time in war and the undulations of the sea. There is this sense of swimming through life in these pages: not knowing one’s purpose while taking things as they come. At times, though, I wondered if the Bowman of this book was a romantic projection of the author himself: the sexually adroit stoic, the warrior and the man of letters. The question is: do we need this kind of hero any more? Do we need to resurrect a new modernist, someone who had given up on the central institutions of Western culture, to save us from ourselves? If we do, then Salter had given us one. If we don’t, then let us relegate Philip Bowman to the shelf of lost souls along with myriad others.

About Reviewer: Martin Fossum

An occasional reviewer at Workaday Reads, Martin Fossum is the author of Faking Smart!, Beyond Asimios and Ildarim’s Arrow.

He currently lives in St. Paul with his wife, Emily, and their irascible and lovable terrier, Max.

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