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

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.”

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

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis