All That Is

9781400043132_p0_v2_s260x420If you are thinking you are too old to write, consider James Salter at 87 years old with his first novel in 35 years – All That Is. Although Salter has a reputation for being in the same league as Roth and Updike (according to NPR), I have not read any of his books (over a dozen) including the tempting title – Life is Meals. His age prompted my interest – not the glorious reviews or awards.

Salter documents the life of Philip Bowman in All That Is, beginning with a horrifying description of his participation in World War II as a junior naval officer in the Pacific. Bowman graduates from Harvard, marries a Southern Belle, has an affair, divorces, and works his way up as a book editor at a small New York publishing house. As you follow him, Bowman’s life seems ordinary; his experiences could reflect that of any man looking back on his life.  Salter treats the story like a fictional memoir but keeps you present at each stage of Bowman’s life, introducing and interacting with Philip’s mother, friends, lovers, fellow workers – with acute attention to the details.   As he shifts the point of view, it’s easy to be confused about who is ruminating; characters move in and out of focus, and it sometimes takes a few paragraphs to realize someone else is talking. Malcolm Jones in his New York Times review notes:

In the preface to his 1997 memoir, “Burning the Days,” {Salter} 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…As with any house, all within cannot be seen.” That apt description of his engaging reminiscences might easily serve to introduce this novel.

All That Is has that literary quality that will keep you reading, only if you do not require constant angst, mystery and intrigue, scandal, romance, sex. Not that these are missing; they are just not always obvious – except for the sex. His words have that lilting beauty that can lull the reader into not realizing how awful the action really is.

Philip finally falls in love with his soulmate – not his wife.  She mercilessly uses him to get what she wants.  Reeling from the shock of her betrayal, Philip is desolate – until he exacts revenge through her daughter.  His action leaves that sour taste that Gillian Flynn perfected so well in Gone Girl; Salter’s character has more sophistication and literary aplomb – but is no less loathsome – and the ending promises that he will continue to be.

I closed the book with a hollow feeling.  With magnificent language throughout and a documented life that often connected to an everyman scenario, the story had no real plot, yet Bowman seemed worth following.   Alas, he was not.

6 thoughts on “All That Is

  1. I’ve looked at this book for months, debating whether to read it. Thanks for the review – you’ve confirmed my suspicions and saved me some time and money!

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