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ALL THAT IS by James Salter


by James Salter

Pub Date: April 2nd, 2013
ISBN: 978-1-400-04313-2
Publisher: Knopf

In his first fiction since the story collection Last Night (2005), the acclaimed veteran author chronicles the life and loves of a Manhattan book editor over a 40-year period. 

Okinawa, 1945. The Americans and Japanese are preparing for the climactic battle of the Pacific. Salter’s sweep is panoramic but his eye, God-like, is also on the sparrow, a 20-year-old officer in the U.S. Navy, Philip Bowman. It’s a stunning opening, displaying a mastery of scale that will not be repeated. Bowman is the protagonist: loyal, conscientious, a virgin (there’s no rush), from a modest home in New Jersey. He’s very close to his schoolteacher mother (father absconded in his infancy). After Harvard, Bowman is hired by the high-principled owner of a small literary publishing house. He meets Vivian at a bar. She’s from Virginia, part of a rich, horsey set. As lovers, they transcend mortality, becoming gods and goddesses. Everyday life is more difficult. Bowman believes the unlettered Vivian, now his bride, is educable; she’s not. At a Christmas house party in Virginia, the young couple is obscured by hard-drinking minor characters with easy morals. The narrative is studded with these striking vignettes; in retrospect, they’re a swirling mass, losing their particularity. In London on a business trip, Bowman meets a married woman, just as rich, and scales new heights of passion with her; their affair will fizzle out, like his marriage to Vivian. Bowman’s work gets less attention. Salter writes with cosmopolitan ease but avoids the nitty-gritty of the business; Bowman floats above all that, while somehow acquiring the respect of his peers. His third great passion is a disaster. An ill-defined American woman with a teenage daughter appears to be his soul mate; then she cheats on him. Four years later, Bowman uses the daughter in a shockingly cruel way; to make matters worse, this thoughtful man fails to examine his conduct. Without his self-knowledge, there is nothing to knit the novel together.

There are incidental pleasures here but, overall, a disappointing return.