All That Is by James Salter
I must admit that until I looked him up on Wikipedia I had no idea that James Salter was 87 and still going strong, or that he was such a lion of American literature. He published his first novel in his thirties after a career in the USAF. I was vaguely aware that he was well thought of, but that’s as far as it went! All That Is is his latest novel, and it’s the story of the life and loves of one man…
Philip Bowman returns from the war, having served in the Navy off Okinawa, and slips into the world of publishing as a book editor in a small firm in New York. He meets a beautiful blonde girl, Vivian, from a well-off family in Virginia. They wed…
Bowman was happy or felt he was, she was his, a beautiful woman or girl. He saw life ahead in regular terms, with someone who would be beside him. In the presence of her family and friends he realized that he knew only one side of her, a side that attracted him but that was not her entire or essential self. Behind her as he looked was her unyielding father and not far away from him her sister and brother-in-law. They were all complete strangers. Across the room, smiling and alcoholic, was her mother, Caroline. Vivian caught his eye and perhaps this thoughts and smiled at him, it seemed understandingly. The unsettled feeling disappeared. Her smile was living, sincere. We’ll leave soon, it said. That night though, having driven to the Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington, wearied by the events of the day and unaccustomed to being a wedded couple, they simply went to sleep.
That chaste extract above doesn’t accurately reflect their initial relationship, however, but ultimately this marriage won’t last.
Bowman has an affair whilst abroad on a trip in Europe with Enid, an Englishwoman. Theirs is a lusty union, continued on subsequent trips. Vivian eventually calls it a day with Philip without ever knowing about this infidelity, their relationship has just run its course. But, it soon becomes clear that Enid is not never going to marry him and they let things peter out. Then he meets a woman in a taxi queue at the airport whom, he thinks, might be the one…
Christine, is separated from her Greek husband, and has a sixteen year old daughter. They are terribly in lust with each other, and soon move in together after Christine finds a perfect little house by the ocean. Phil keeps his apartment in New York though. This set-up is set-up to fail, but I won’t explain how.
Although this novel is all about Philip’s search for love, it’s no romance. Phil reminds me slightly of Mad Men‘s Don Draper – he works hard, and plays hard when given the chance. It’s a surprisingly lusty book – all the encounters are written from Philip’s point of view, they’re manly but not overly graphic!
But there’s far more to Philip’s life than the sex. There’s life in the publishing industry, less about the mechanics – more about the personalities, including his boss who described his firm as ‘a literary house … but only by necessity.’ It’s at the publishers that Philip meets Neil Eddins the other Editor, who becomes his best friend. There are families too – Philip’s mother Beatrice in particular is a presence and somewhat steadying influence on him. The decades flow by. Bowman lives, works and loves, he suffers and comes through whatever life throws at him, and in between we revisit those we encounter before – older and wiser.
Salter’s writing style is not showy, but the language is precise, sentences tend to be short. He doesn’t signpost dialogue with he said, she said for the most part either, leaving you to work out who’s saying what.
I didn’t warm to Bowman much, although I could sympathise when things didn’t go his way. Although I did like the style, it all felt a bit remote and almost ordinary. All that is ended up leaving me with a feeling of is that all there is? (7/10)
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I received a review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
All That Is by James Salter, pub 23rd May 2013 by Picador, Hardback 290 pages.
3 thoughts on “Is That All There Is? …”
Kevin from Canada (www.kevinfromcanada.wordpress.com) just reviewed this and seemed to have the same sort of ‘not warming’ to the character reaction.
Thanks Guy – I think I agree with everything Kevin said about this book. I don’t know whether I’ll want to read any of his other novels though …
I’m reading this today and I thought maybe I wasn’t far enough into the book to feel comfortable there. After reading your comments I fear maybe that isn’t going to happen. Do try one of Salter’s earlier books. I haven’t read one for a long time but I remember liking them very much.