James Salter is 87 years old. His fiction has been highly lauded but not voluminous, so his publisher hardly overreaches in trumpeting his first novel in almost 35 years as “an extraordinary literary event.” The title of Salter’s new book, “All That Is,” suggests some kind of grand retrospective. He delivers, but not in the obvious way. There’s no compendium of the elder’s collected wisdom, no pronouncements or sudden self-revelations. The novel is similar in design and tone to what Salter has always offered: a plaintive, impressionistic look at how we live in time, how little we ever understand about the amorphous shape of our own lives.
“All That Is” begins with the brutality of war that has haunted Salter since his own Air Force pilot days. The novel’s protagonist, Philip Bowman, returns from his service in the Navy at Okinawa a subtly changed man, “almost indistinguishable from other citizens except in inner knowing,” and gets a job as an editor at the small firm Braden and Baum. The other main characters are the publisher, Robert Baum; a fellow editor, Neil Eddins; and a British counterpart, the rich, legendary publisher Bernard Wiberg — along with their wives and lovers, several of whom wind up being shared over the decades. How could that not be the case? The men travel in the same rarefied publishing circles. “At a certain point,” Bowman muses, “you began to feel that you knew everyone, there was no one new.”
Hemingway was born a quarter of a century before Salter, but Salter shares many of Hemingway’s preoccupations: war, France, sumptuous food (like Hemingway, Salter wrote an eating-in-France memoir) and sex. But Salter’s attitude toward women could not be more different from Hemingway’s and that of the other authors whom David Foster Wallace called “the Great Male Narcissists.” When Salter’s men are attracted to a woman, they fall in love — and love blends seamlessly into the comfortable pleasures of the domestic. Having dinner with friends or chatting over a nice wine: Familiarity, for these men, is not stultifying but magical.
Despite the depth of their feelings, these men wind up alone time and again. Bowman’s first wife asks for a divorce — “I’ve had the feeling that we’ve each been going our own way without a lot in common,” she writes in her kiss-off letter — and his ravishing girlfriend not only jilts him but also manages to bilk him out of his beloved house. Some years later, Bowman gets his revenge, in a startling set piece that almost feels like a stand-alone short story from Salter’s excellent collection, “Last Night.”
Mostly, however, the novel is not plot-driven. Although it covers a large period of time, it is often unspecific about dates, bereft of cultural touch points. No one is anywhere when Kennedy is shot or when Nixon resigns. The men travel on expense accounts — London, Spain — and while there they drink and eat and have sex and muse on art. In the hands of another writer, such material might seem static or trivial. But “All That Is” convinces us that this is all that is. Salter is mostly concerned with the plangent texture of the daily, with the light or rain outside a window, with a city’s vibrancy or, always, the way that sex reconfigures perception, as in this scene between Bowman and his girlfriend:
“She lay beside him for a few minutes, the first minutes, as a swimmer lies in the sun. . . . They made love simply, straightforwardly — she saw the ceiling, he the sheets, like schoolchildren. There was no sound but the float of traffic distant and below. There was not even that. The silence was everywhere.”
Moments of such intensity fade as the men age. A sense of nostalgia pervades the book, for not only youth but for also a vanished world when “people still had family silver” and publishers worked very closely with their authors. One of the editors reminisces about the lost world of his childhood in a small Southern town: “We knew the doctor, we knew the president of the bank. If you called the doctor, even at some god-awful hour, he’d come to the house. He knew you.”
Readers may feel less convinced that they know Salter’s characters, given the large number of them and the way they weave in and out of the action. Salter has an unsettling habit of occasionally introducing new chapters with an unspecified “she,” so we aren’t sure which of the sundry objects of affection we’re watching, or when. Eddins and Wiberg aren’t as developed as Bowman, although they do allow Salter to paint a fuller portrait of how the publishing industry has changed. Along with allusions to key figures — Ezra Pound, Susan Sontag — Salter gives a sly nod to “an old writer . . . still respected for an early book or two” (like Salter, “he had known everyone”), and he offers a chillingly accurate gloss on literature’s increasingly marginal position:
“The power of the novel in the nation’s culture had weakened. It had happened gradually. It was something everyone recognized and ignored. All went on exactly as before, that was the beauty of it. The glory had faded but fresh faces kept appearing, wanting to be part of it, to be in publishing which had retained a suggestion of elegance like a pair of beautiful, bone-shined shoes owned by a bankrupt man.”
Zeidner’s fifth novel, “Love Bomb,” was recently published. She is a professor at Rutgers University.
ALL THAT IS
By James Salter
Knopf. 290 pp. $26.95