All That Is by James Salter: Deep seriousness and grammar-defiant swooning

Salter appears to feel no terror at boundlessness and no need to impose his own geometry. What he is more eager to impose – or to let flourish – is a particular way of seeing. Among recent American novels, <em>All That Is</em> has few equals on this score

The writer James Salter, aged 87. Photograph: Matt Nager/Redux/Eyevine

All That Is
James Salter
Picador, 304pp, £18.99

In Michael Chabon’s novel Wonder Boys, a creative writing student in possession of a style “as plain and poetic as rain on a daisy” warns her celebrated but worn tutor that his latest novel, many years in the making and, at 2,500-plus pages, still unfinished, has a feeling of being “spread out”. “Spread out?” he asks. “Okay, not spread out, then, but jammed too full,” she replies, citing a few examples of what she means, among them the genealogies of the characters’ horses. It’s a vivid glimpse of the kind of long-gestating project that has actual models in literary history – Harold Brodkey’s The Runaway Soul (1991) might be the classic modern instance – and so it is to James Salter’s credit that, in writing his first new novel in 35 years, he has taken an approach that risks being both spread out and jammed and comes up with something that is so nearly a masterpiece.

If there’s an appropriate metaphor for the way Salter tells the story of the navy vet and book editor Philip Bowman, it isn’t the family tree but the social network, with its emphasis on “mutual friends” and “people you may know”. In other words, this is a novel with an inordinate number of dropped names, including such figures as Vernon Beseler, a drunken poet and the ex-husband of Dena (there are also characters called Enid and Edina), a “tall, loose-limbed” single mother from Texas who ends up living in “a small white house in Piermont” with Bowman’s friend Eddins; Stanley Palm, a divorced painter whom Eddins and Dena meet at the restaurant Sbordone’s; and Judy, the “darkhaired girl in a tight sweater” whom Stanley meets at the Village Hall and who says nothing when he slips his hand inside her leather jacket. Everywhere Salter turns, he finds facts and anecdotes and fragrances to pass on; you soon stop distinguishing between the essential and the indolent.

A heaving supporting cast tends to be used to fill out a world but the purpose here is temporal as much as spatial. Bowman is a frequenter of bars and dinner parties and an able seducer but he is also an ordinary man, the majority of whose mostly uneventful life we see, and all those secretaries and in-laws and colleagues amount to a lifetime’s driftwood. We first encounter him during his final days as a seaman in the Pacific war and we leave him in a moment of apparent calm, at some point in the 1980s. The years stream by, doing little – apart from supplying the odd presidential assassination – to distinguish themselves. The only palpable means by which Salter marks the passage of time is in the intermittent updates about the ailments, break-ups and business schemes of people Bowman knows or knows about or from whom he is separated by one or two degrees. There are a thousand ways for a life to go wrong and Salter shows us most of them.

Bowman is the novel’s still centre and, now and then, a dead one; though never exactly a blank, he tends to let things happen to him and they reliably do. Most of his thoughts are of the short-term variety. The press of experience allows him plenty of downtime – he loves to read at night, with silence and the golden colour of whiskey as “companions” – but not much detachment. The only moment he says anything concrete about himself is in the early 1960s when, on a trip to London, a woman in a Soho pub asks him, “What has your life been like? . . . What are the things that have mattered?” and he replies: “The navy and the war.” But a few minutes later: “He was not sure he had told the truth.”

Any moderately or even sporadically attentive reader of All That Is would have to say that what matters, what gives Bowman a sense of purpose, is sex. Of his many relationships – things get a little frenzied near the end – the most significant are with the remote Vivian, a product of Virginia horse country, to whom he is briefly married, and Christine, a single mother whom he meets in an airport taxi queue. Bowman’s life is defined by his appetites; elaborated and explored, these are what fill the novel. The resulting view of human existence is on the limited side – liquor, female flesh, hardbacks, title deeds, divorce papers – but Salter gets what he needs from this seedy quintet.

The confidence is staggering and must be a product of age. Salter turns 88 next month and has been publishing novels since the 1950s, albeit infrequently (this is his sixth). In his preface to Roderick Hudson, which, despite the ineradicable existence of Watch and Ward, he called “my first attempt at a novel”, Henry James recalled the “terror” he felt as “a young embroiderer of the canvas of life”; continuing but switching visual figures, he wrote: “Really, universally, relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so.” Salter is more than a half-century older than James was when he embarked on Roderick Hudson – a quartercentury older than James was when he wrote the preface – and he appears to feel no terror at boundlessness and no need to impose his own geometry.

What he is more eager to impose – or to let flourish – is a particular way of seeing. Among recent American novels, All That Is has few equals on this score. Rhapsodic and marvelling, with a treasurable lack of cynicism and a 1950s-ish directness, Salter’s style is sensory without being exactly lyrical, like a finergrained Henry Miller or a coarser-grained Lawrence Durrell. Although he likes to linger over impressions, he is rarely wasteful. A former screenwriter, he can nail a whole relationship in a half-page scenelet, in a few exchanges or a canny detail. Eddins’s first sight of Dena is typical: “Intense but quick to laugh, she spoke with a drawl in a voice filled with life.” And yet he is not a daintily descriptive writer for whom fine purity or clean elegance is the only goal; he begins sentences with “also” and commits crimes against syntax – and occasionally sense – in pursuit of a powerful effect. The novel, though full of highlights, amounts to more than just the sum of them.

At the moment, the only other evidence we have of Salter’s late manner comes from “Charisma”, 11 elliptical pages on which “the ink has only just dried”, as John Banville puts it in his introduction to Salter’s welcome – and wieldy – Collected Stories (Picador, £18.99). It’s an awkward performance – an inquiry into the way that women think about men (“No one was like him, his energy, his emanation”) that gives the reader all kinds of reasons to recoil.

At times, you recoil from the novel, too, from the hard-boiled worldliness and the straitened conception of women and – related to these – the lordly indifference to movements in the public sphere. But mostly, Salter’s grammar-defiant swooning is the vehicle for a deep seriousness about human sensation and emotion and you give in, happy to be helpless, like Bowman when, on meeting Christine, he tells himself: “All right, become intoxicated.”