ALL THAT IS
By James Salter
290 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $26.95.
It’s been almost 35 years since the publication of James Salter’s previous novel, “Solo Faces.” In the meantime, he’s written two volumes of stories and one of poetry, a memoir, a collection of travel essays and, with his wife, Kay Eldredge Salter, a book about food. He has not been idle. Still, any or all of those books, excellent as they are, might suggest a career in twilight, with grand gestures and major lifts all in the rearview mirror. And why not? Salter is 87, with a reputation so secure he has nothing left to prove. If there were a Mount Rushmore for writers, he’d be there already. He could have published nothing, and no one would have thought less of him.
Apparently no one told Salter, who, with the publication of “All That Is,” an ambitious departure from his previous work, has demolished any talk of twilight with a single stroke. Moreover, this novel casts the last four decades in a completely new light, not coda but overture. The brilliantly compressed stories in which life is lit by lightning flash, the humane memoir that generously exalts, more than anything, the lineaments of ordinary existence — it’s all here, subsumed and assimilated in the service of a work that manages to be both recognizable (no one but Salter could have written it) and yet strikingly original, vigorous proof that this literary lion is still very much on the prowl.
In the preface to his 1997 memoir, “Burning the Days,” he wrote: “If you can think of life, for a moment, as a large house with a nursery, living and dining rooms, bedrooms, study, and so forth, all unfamiliar and bright, the chapters which follow are, in a way, like looking through the windows of this house. Certain occupants will be glimpsed only briefly. Visitors come and go. At some windows, you may wish to stay longer, but alas. As with any house, all within cannot be seen.” That apt description of his engaging reminiscences might easily serve to introduce this novel.
In the past, Salter’s fiction has concentrated with near savage intensity on specific, revealing moments in its characters’ lives. “A Sport and a Pastime” chronicles the span of a love affair. “The Hunters” and “Cassada” are bound by military tours of duty, “Light Years” by the history of a decaying marriage. The mountain climbers in “Solo Faces” contend against both gravity and the vagaries of age. Behind all these stories is the sound of a ticking clock.
Going long where those previous narratives were almost cruelly terse, “All That Is” gobbles the whole arc of a man’s lifetime as its subject, opening near the end of World War II, when Philip Bowman is a junior naval officer on a ship bound for Japan. Over the next several decades, we see him married and divorced, and watch him make his way as a book editor at a literary publishing house in New York. Other romances follow, the most significant one curdled by a cruel betrayal that Bowman ultimately repays with commensurate viciousness. Friends fall away, new friendships are forged, houses are bought and sold, parents die, and one by one the bonds of love and attachment weaken and fade. In one of our last glimpses of Bowman — he’s just old enough to be thinking hard about death — he’s pondering a trip back to the Pacific, last seen from a warship’s deck, “where the only daring part of his life lay.” The clock ticks in this book too, but not so audibly, and sometimes not at all.
Set beside the flyboys and climbers of Salter’s previous books, Bowman looks unremarkable, a loner with a lowercase life and a profession to match: “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.” Here, as always, this writer so at war with the obvious uncovers radiance in even the most melancholy circumstance, applying to it the same rigor he uses to scrutinize and dismiss any easy, conventional notions about heroism or the honorable life.
What redeems the otherwise ordinary Bowman — what gives him grace — are his unstinting capacity for watchfulness and his embrace of memory as a bulwark against oblivion. Supplying his own epigraph, Salter opens the novel with this note: “There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.” Bowman insists at one point that he’s no writer, but, like the man who created him, he doesn’t miss much: “The first voice he ever knew, his mother’s, was beyond memory, but he could recall the bliss of being close to her as a child. He could remember his first schoolmates, the names of everyone, the classrooms, the teachers, the details of his own room at home — the life beyond reckoning, the life that had been opened to him and that he had owned.”
With his customary knack for scenes and characters chiseled with a stonecutter’s economy, Salter constructs Bowman’s world out of dozens of glistening miniatures and tossed-off portraits, each bristling with life. There are the troops at Tarawa, “slaughtered in enemy fire dense as bees,” and Bowman’s uncle, a New Jersey restaurant owner who “had taught himself to play the piano and would sit in happiness, drawn up close to the keyboard with his thick fingers, their backs richly haired, nimble on the keys.” There is an upper-crust London party that might have been drawn by Hogarth, where an “older woman with a nose as long as an index finger was eating greedily, and the man with her blew his nose in the linen napkin, a gentleman, then.” (Actually, the artist Salter most closely resembles is Degas, with his icy regard and discerning, sensual eye.) And while there is a generous amount of carnality, as might be expected from the author of “A Sport and a Pastime,” the sex is always lyrically economical and never ever laughable, except when it means to be: “They made love simply, straightforwardly — she saw the ceiling, he the sheets.”
The everyday may be one of the hardest things to write about — the quotidian doings, including the outright tedium, of ordinary life. Writers from Flaubert to David Foster Wallace have attempted it, and its difficulties may be gauged by the fact that only writers of that caliber even consider trying. But to pull it off, to succeed in conjuring the “unbreathing stillness” of an August dawn just before a storm or the vertigo ignited by the news of a mother’s death, to indelibly record the trivial and the portentous with the same ravenous affection, thereby persuading us that there may be no difference between the two when assaying the worth of a life or divining its mystery — that is a crowning achievement and it’s Salter’s to claim.