164 of 179 people found the following review helpful
on April 2, 2013
Until a month ago, I'd never read James Salter -- which, now, after reading two of his novels, including his first novel in 34 years, All That Is, which is out today (April 2nd), seems like a cryin' shame. Salter is often mentioned in the breath just after American masters like Philip Roth, John Updike, and Norman Mailer -- and after reading him, I don't understand why he doesn't get his due.
What All That Is is is wonderful! (Using the word "is" three times in a row? Check. I can die now.) It's a celebration of being alive -- which sounds cliché, until you see how Salter manages to capture such a range of human experience in a tiny, 300-page novel. Life is a continuous cycle of love and loss, everyone deals with these differently, and truly, everyone is unique.
Salter's novel is told mainly through the eyes of Philip Bowman, a World War II veteran who spends the mid-20th century as a book editor in New York City. We follow Bowman through a marriage and several other affairs of the heart -- each meaningful to him in a different way. The plot of the novel really picks up steam in the second half, when Salter really begins to plumb the depths of Bowman's character. We have to decide whether, despite his flaws, we like him. It's turns out to be quite the tricky decision.
Salter also gives us mini-"profiles" of minor characters throughout the novel -- again just to illustrate how quirky we all are. And there a several sort of set pieces that lay groundwork thematically for later events. Normally, these would feel like unnecessary digressions, but Salter writes so beautifully, so elegantly, you're willing to follow him anywhere. And what's more, Salter doesn't skimp on the sex scene -- and his sex scenes are about what might happen if Maya Angelou collaborated with Philip Roth: poetic, but a little crass, too.
If you've never read Salter, and you love good books, you have to try him. I am an immediate convert. (The other novel of his I read was A Sport And A Pastime -- which, evidently, is the novel he's most known for.) Salter, who is 87, has only published five other novels (but tons of short stories, poetry, essay, and memoir), so I'm experiencing that particular sadness of "discovering" a writer on what is most likely his last novel. But that's okay. All That Is is so good, I'm happy enough that it was late, and not never.
85 of 97 people found the following review helpful
A major literary event.
That's the phrase for any novel by James Salter, and especially "All That Is." First, because Salter is known in the trade as a "writer's writer" --- underappreciated by the public but revered by those in the know. Then, because this is his first full-length novel since 1979. And, not least, because he is now 87 and by any sane measure it's likely that "All That Is" will be all there is --- his final book.
Regular readers of this site know that I have been an admirer of Salter's work ever since I read A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years as a pup, and that I have had the privilege of knowing Salter for three decades. The length of our friendship and his four score and seven years seem like fiction; for me, my friends are always the age they were when I met them. So I have trouble with the valedictory tone that's more or less expected in any assessment of "All That Is." In my head, I see Salter at his desk, surrounded by notebooks, turning words this way and that, struggling to write not his final book but his best one.
But "All That Is" does invite us to read it as a summing up. It has that heft: 300 pages, for Salter a thick book indeed. In form, the novel is surprisingly traditional. Salter, known for books that are short and terse because his sentences seem more carved than written, follows Philip Bowman, a smart, sensitive World War II vet who stumbles into the book business and has a long, almost distinguished career as an editor.
Publishing, even in New York, does not lend itself to heroics; Bowman "liked to read with the silence and the golden color of the whiskey as his companions. He liked food, people, talk, but reading was an inexhaustible pleasure." I'm down with that, but I live in New York, I've known that man. His work and joy are interior; a book about such a man requires a second engine.
That engine is Bowman's parallel career with women. When we meet him, Bowman is not exactly surging with testosterone. His first marriage --- his only marriage --- is to the wrong woman. How could it be otherwise? "He loved her for not only what she was but what she might be, the idea that she might be otherwise did not occur to him or did not matter. Why would it occur? When you love you see a future according to your dreams." That's an interesting idea. It is not, however, an idea that leads to high drama.
That marriage is followed by a promising affair with a woman in London: "It seemed his manhood had suddenly caught up with him, as if it had been waiting somewhere in the wings." No kidding:
"In the bedroom she stepped from her skirt. She stood for a moment, hugging herself, and then slipped off the rest. The glory of her. England stood before him, naked in the darkness. She had been, in fact, lonely, she was ready to be loved. He was never more sure of his knowledge. He kissed her bare shoulders..."
"He slipped the dress straps from her shoulders. You could never have anyone like this. His old, fettered life was behind him, it had been transformed as if by some revelation. They made love as if it were a violent crime..."
"Her blond hair, her lean style. He saw himself now to be another kind of man, the kind he had hoped, fully a man, used to the wonder. Enid smoked cigarettes, she did it only now and again, and breathed out the rich fragrance slowly. The light in the Ritz made her beautiful. The sound of her high heels. There is no other; there will never be another."
But that great love fades.
Who's next? A woman he meets in a cab. You hope she'll be his great love. I won't spoil what follows with her and then with her daughter, but by now I cared enough about Bowman to despair for him. I saw his end as the fate of Viri, in "Light Years."
Not so. Again, no spoilers, but "All There Is" ends with water. And not the dark water of "Light Years." Here there is the pulse of life, the province of hope. It is just magnificent. Salter, who has the gift of writing sentences that exactly reproduce what we feel and think in the moment we feel and think it, moves beyond that incomparable skill and does something even more difficult: He gives us his heart.
For all that, if you have never read Salter, don't start with this book. Work up to it. Read "A Sport and a Pastime." Read "Light Years." Read Burning the Days, his memoir, which tells the story of a West Point graduate and Air Force fighter pilot (more than 100 missions in Korea) and his transformation into a writer. Read the stories in Dusk and Last Night. And only then...
Sounds like a project? Oh no. Dear friend, I have just handed you a gift beyond price.
104 of 121 people found the following review helpful
on April 5, 2013
There is much to admire in "All That Is"--beautiful writing, epic story-telling that takes place over several continents and the better part of the twentieth century. James Salter is at times dazzling as he tells the stories of his characters, weaving them into the much larger life and times in which they live. In the opening pages he immediately grounds the reader with a vivid portrayal of his strong, admirable protagonist Phillip Bowman during a World War II battle in the Pacific. Over the course of the novel, he creates beautiful scenes of the post-war United States, the mid-century publishing world and the lives of those who are part of it. With an economy of words, he creates marvelously vivid descriptions. The reader follows young Bowman home from the war, on to Harvard and a successful career at a small, literary publishing house in New York with periodic trips to Europe. Bowman's world is filled with wealthy, intellectual, attractive individuals, many of whom have their lives developed in small vignettes.
And yet, for me, it was not an engaging novel. I found it difficult to follow the progression of time. In one chapter, unless I missed something earlier, the clarification came in the last sentence, "The president had been shot in Dallas." Then, at the end of the next chapter: "The New Year. 1969." Wait, five years elapsed between chapters? I was bothered by the frequent shifts in point of view, sometimes between paragraphs and some mini-stories that seemed to wander. After so many beautiful women and trips to Europe, by the end, I was ready to bid Bowman farewell.
22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on September 20, 2013
I attempted to read this book because it was written by an award-winning author. I like to think that books of merit receive these awards. But I was wrong in this case.
I read the first 100 pages, which was generous. I kept searching for a conflict ... any conflict. If going from one sexual encounter to the next defines conflict, then he has written a few! The biggest conflict for me was trying to figure out how the bazillion characters were related. And just when I thought I had them straight in my mind, the author skipped to another group of characters and lost me completely.
Like other reviewers, I found myself bogged down in mundane conversations somewhat akin to watching a stranger's family vacation video. The dialogue was boring...sort of "Hello, how are you? Fine. What are you eating for breakfast? Toast and coffee. Want some?"
Several chapters into the novel, I found myself skipping at first paragraphs and then entire sections. Out of frustration, I closed the book and will never reopen it.
I'm convinced that the 4-and-5-star reviews were submitted by people who have a vested interest in the author. I wish I could write something positive, but I would be deceiving myself and anyone who reads my review if I did.
24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on May 21, 2013
James Salter is 87, and revered in haute literary circles. Never has the cliché "a writer's writer" seemed so apt. His book DUSK AND OTHER STORIES won the PEN/Faulkner award, and ALL THAT IS, his first full-length fiction since 1979, is presented with jacket blurbs from the likes of John Banville, Tim O'Brien, Julian Barnes and John Irving --- themselves no slouches in the novelist-as-icon department. Their encomiums use words like masterpiece and compare Salter's language to Shakespeare's. He has been profiled in The Paris Review and, just the other week, The New Yorker.
Am I intimidated? Yes. But a bit irritated, too, as if I should judge the gift by the prestigious wrapping it comes in.
The book contains masterful writing, but I'm not sure it's a successful novel. It seems to me rather a series of scenes without a lot of connective tissue. The focus is either near or far; if it were a film, there would be close-ups and long shots and no middle distance. Could this writer, with his gift for short fiction, have become impatient with the sustained demands of a novel?
Perhaps. Salter violates every writing-workshop dictum I can think of --- a strategy, to be sure, rather than a lapse --- jumping from one point of view to another with disorienting frequency; returning to minor characters several chapters after the reader has met them (often I couldn't remember who they were); "telling" rather than "showing" (nearly every character is given copious amounts of biography the minute he or she appears; there are also great swaths of cultural/social/historical observation plonked down in the middle of the narrative).
Rule-breaking can be refreshing, but in this case it slows the forward movement of the novel almost to a standstill. Exquisite as the prose is (spare, haunting, understated, gorgeous), whenever I left off reading, I was in no great hurry to return.
ALL THAT IS is set in the (fairly) recent past. Salter takes one Philip Bowman --- an Everyman for the generation that was just old enough to fight in World War II --- and, starting with his time as a naval officer in the Pacific (the book opens in 1944 with a scene aboard a battleship), traces his life to late middle age, with flashbacks to childhood and youth. Bowman is an outsider, brought up in Summit, New Jersey, near the city but remote from its glamour and bustle. At one point, he describes Manhattan as "a long necklace of light across the river. ... It was like a dream, trying to imagine it all, the windows and entire floors that never went dark, the world you wanted to be in."
Bowman's vision of a future life is less about success or money per se than it is about belonging.He gets into Harvard ("shamelessly" using his wartime service to be admitted); he goes into book publishing, acquires a certain sophistication, and starts to penetrate the inside world of editors and publishers in the States and, especially, Europe.
Salter is acute and often witty about publishing. A couple of important characters --- Bowman's boss in New York, Robert Baum, and the British publisher Bernard Wiberg --- represent elegant, aspirational lives and dubious ethics: "They were a literary house, Baum liked to say, but only through necessity. They were not going to turn down a best-seller as a matter of principle. The idea, he said, was to pay little and sell a truckful." Wiberg, a German refugee, ultimately acquires a Sir before his name and publishes Nobel Prize winners: "He had, in fact, been a factor in their winning. ... Even excellence, he knew, had to be presold."
Baum and Wiberg are more colorful than Bowman himself, who, for a protagonist, is something of a cipher. (The one time we see this passive fellow make a decision, it is to take morally despicable revenge on a former lover.) Mostly, things happen to him. His romantic relationships stem from random encounters in bars or at parties. The novel is not really "about" Bowman. It is about a particular time, a particular generation of men and their attempt to realize a larger, more heroic life. One important route to this dream is women. In them Bowman seeks not just sexual conquest --- though there is plenty of that, in explicit detail --- but a sort of completion.
Bowman goes through a marriage and a couple of lengthy liaisons, all of which crash and burn. The endings and betrayals always seem to take him by surprise. The beginnings of his relations with women, on the other hand, have the mystique of a sacred ritual. Enid Armour, cool and elegant and British, represents, to Bowman, "a privileged, distant world." With his next lover, Christine Vassilaros, he is immediately "intoxicated"; he feels that he knows her "from the first word, the first look, the first embrace, the first fatal dance." They go swimming in the ocean, dangerously, at night --- a stupendous scene, yet also ridiculously grandiose: "He felt like a god."
There are plenty of women in the story, but Salter never really gets inside their heads; they remain objects of desire. The exception is Bowman's doting mother, Beatrice. The chapter about her dementia and decline --- "Age doesn't arrive slowly, it comes in a rush" --- is, I think, the best and most moving in the book.
By and large, though, this is a very male novel. There are many works of fiction that could have been written (and can be read with pleasure) by either gender. Among the authors who have been successful at inhabiting characters of the opposite sex, I have been persuaded most recently by Ian McEwan's young wife in ON CHESIL BEACH and the Thomas Cromwell of Hilary Mantel in her WOLF HALLand BRING UP THE BODIES. And then there are books, like this one, that suggest universality (the title is not modest) but fall dismayingly short. I can imagine a man reading Salter's novel and feeling thrillingly, painfully understood. The effect on me was quite different. With its chilly marble women, simultaneously worshiped and dismissed, ALL THAT IS recalls an era of sexual politics that I would prefer not to relive, even in the pages of a book.
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on June 9, 2013
There was much early ballyhoo about this book, including an extended essay in The New Yorker inquiring but not resolving why Salter is not more renowned. Then there is the fact that he was 87 and still methodically at it. Years ago I read LIGHT YEARS and found that in a gloomy way it captured the feeling of long periods of passing time.
ALL THAT IS is a sad disappointment. Philip Bowman, its central character, is, depending on one's perspective, strikingly unrealized or else fully realized as an empty, decidedly uninteresting man. Salter has been celebrated as a stylist, but the effects achieved here are embarrassing simulations of Hemingway and O'Hara. Though mainly Bowman's story from young manhood through late middle edge, there is an annoying sequence of capsulized life summaries of others, intended, one assumes, to create what Salter wants to suggest is the rich complexity of life.
There is an unattractive robotic ploddingness to Bowman. He has a series of mostly successful sexual relationships with women, some of them graphic but all lacking voltage necessary to make them consequential.
I finished the book only because I could not believe it could end with so little impact or message, but it did.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on December 6, 2013
I would like to break this review down into the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Here's the good:
James Salter knows how to write a sentence or two. He's a careful observer of people, places, things, moods, and changing landscapes that are emotional, psychological, and physical. He's precise in his word choice, exacting in selection of details, and subtle in his tracking of his characters' inner emotional and intellectual lives.
Now for the bad:
Entirely too many characters wander in and out of this book like an unwanted parade of random individuals upon whom we stare for all of a minute or two until he or she leaves and the next person wanders in. A few characters stick around, and, of course, the lead character, Bowman is around the whole time. But I was eventually lost in the mob of seemingly endless character descriptions, many of which are taken from the same mold: upper middle class professionals in publishing or writing, upper class people having money, having no money, having had money and lost money, unhappy married people having affairs, unhappy divorced people having affairs, happy or otherwise indifferent people eating in elegant restaurants, eating dinner in cosy homes or charmless apartments, and so on. In short, I really didn't care for many of these people, their life styles, and their assumptions. Frankly, I don't think this description of living is "all that is," as the title purports to say.
The lead character, Bowman, turns out to be quite an unlikeable chap. I don't want to spoil the "fun" for you but he does something toward the end of the book that is utterly repellant and unforgivable to me. Yet Mr. Salter seems to think nothing much of it. It's all part I guess of what he sees as modern ennui, modern disrupted lives, societal rot, and all that negative stuff.
The other ugly part of this book is its puerile and lame erotic descriptions. They are almost laughable in their "stiffness," as it were. I won't repeat any of them, but I have to say, they seemed like one man's fantasies needlessly and embarrassingly embedded in an otherwise linear narrative.
All in all, I can't recommend this book unless you want to feel "literary." There's much flaunting of intellectual matter here, but to what end still remains elusive to this reader.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on April 14, 2013
I have now read almost all there is of Salter, including the hard to find The Hunters, one of the best war stories ever written. Right up there with The Red Badge of Courage. Yes, Salter is a great writer. Chiseled sentences that are lean and lyrical at the same time. I have lived in or visited many of the venues in which the story of the life of Phil Bowman is set. Salter nails it all down beautifully. Never a false note. And this novel shows Salter to be a master craftsman of plot and pace. Just enough detail to tease you on, to lure you into the story. I couldn't put the book down and finished it in 48 hours. It is not for the lazy reader, but rewarding for those who pay attention to every detail.
At the same time, this book is a rich history of the post- war years for upper middle class Americans. The detail is continuously telling. Salter tells it like it all is. Salter in a few words gives us the taste of life in the Pacific war, the day Kennedy was shot, the 60s. All in a dense but economical 300 pages, and with a glance at the great literature of the era as well.
And yet, it is not all there is. Like most of Salter's characters, Bowman is a limited man, mistaking sex for love until it is almost too late, yet not quite we think, if the last few pages are as life affirming as I found them to be. There is some fine writing at the end on what is meaningful in life. Both here and earlier this can be difficult to recognize, as in the end I believe the man who flew 100 combat missions in Korea with some awful people at his side finds most people he encounters pretty wanting. There aren't many characters in this book that I would want as personal friends. The life is limited and shallow. But Bowman wants something more, and strives for all that is, in his own lights.
At the end I think he and Salter are finding it. Salter's great sensitivity brings him through at the final hour. A splendid, complicated, spare yet deep book. A key to life in the United States since WW II.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
All That Is records the chapters of Philip Bowman's life, from his service in the Pacific Fleet during World War II through his eventual employment as a book editor and his troubled marriage to Vivian Amussen, whose father -- a southern gentleman from Virginia -- isn't sure that Bowman has the right breeding to merit his daughter's hand. Later Bowman is "in the middle of life and just beginning." Still later he finds his past repeating. The novel ends before Bowman's life does, leaving it to the reader to decide what will happen next, what his fate will be. Along the way we meet Bowman's friends and lovers, his boss, his relatives and in-laws.
James Salter often sums up minor characters in a few brisk sentences. One of the novel's few faults, in fact, is the abundance of interesting characters. Other than Bowman's friend Neil Eddins, whose life is recounted in bits and pieces, characters appear and then vanish, perhaps reappearing for a moment before vanishing again. People come and go from our lives and that's certainly true in Bowman's case, but the disappearances are frustrating. I felt as if I had met a number of interesting people, only to be disappointed that I had no chance to know them better. On the other hand, I felt I knew Bowman intimately -- knew him, understood him, shared his disappointments and triumphs.
Death and betrayal and the growth and failure of love are recurring themes. The novel is a bit meandering because that's the flow of Bowman's life. All That Is endeavors to tell the story of a life, and lives are often filled with unexciting moments. Some of the novel's scenes are uneventful, the sort of things from our own lives that we remember for no particular reason -- a thunderstorm, a quiet lunch. Sometimes the characters are mere observers, noting changes and trends as America transitions from war to peace to protest (Eddins refers to the rise of feminism, for instance, as "the woman thing"). Salter's nuanced prose prevents the novel from becoming dull even during lulls in the life that is the novel's subject. From time to time, something surprising happens to Bowman, and a couple of times his behavior is shocking. Those are the moments that give the novel its life.
In many respects, Bowman is a man after my own heart. "He liked to read with the silence and the golden color of the whiskey as his companions. He liked food, people, talk, but reading was an inexhaustible pleasure." Bowman's love of books gives him an excuse to share his opinions about Ezra Pound, Lord Byron, Thomas Hardy, and modern American poets, whose success is "the result of intense self-promotion, flattery, and mutual agreements." Bowman experiences and comments upon the evolution (devolution?) of publishing in modern America.
At some point Bowman tells Vivian about his love for one of Hemingway's stories. At times, Salter's writing style is Hemingwayesque: paragraphs are built from direct, punchy, heartfelt sentences. Scenes of war are depicted in taut, piercing prose. At other times -- when, for instance, he describes the impact of war on a shattered England, a victory with the taste of defeat -- his sentences are serpentine, capturing one vivid image after another. He writes about passion with a staccato rhythm while romance is captured in languid language. His descriptions of pain are acute -- most prominently, the agony of lost love ("How did it happen, that something no longer mattered, that it had been judged inessential?").
Eddins looks "at his life as a story -- the real part was something he'd left behind." How much of our lives are real? How much have we really lived? The questions Salter poses in All That Is invite the reader to think about how much of life matters. The good days? The lonely nights? The thunderstorms? The answer, I think, lies in the book's title.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on January 10, 2014
Twenty pages into James Salter's "All There Is" I began asking myself, "How the hell did I choose this book?" I try to choose carefully to obviously not waste my time, but also to avoid the sick feeling you get after you eat junk food or too much candy. I tend not to give up and stop reading a book even when I am not enjoying it. Partially this is the result of multiple times staying with a book and realizing its value later on. I waited for the reward with "All There Is" right to the end.
You could summarize this book by saying it is one man's memoir of his seduction of 5 or 6 or 7 (I lose count) woman and how all but one eventually reject him. Sounds interesting enough except for the total lack of depth to each story, the total lack of the main character's understanding of why any woman would reject him, and (here is the killer), the author's total lack of insight into his character's flaws. That was the reward I looked for right up until the end of the book. If only in one sentence Salter could show that he understood his character's shallowness, it would demonstrate that it was purposeful. When he doesn't it is more like an endorsement of this superficial character, and likely a reflection of the author himself.
The purpose of the book then becomes a glorification of the seductions, an excuse to write about intercourse and the author's attraction to the female body, over and over. It begins to feel like a romance novel written by a really old guy.
Going back and reading other reviews helped me to understand how did I choose a book that I dislike so much, (and that led to my first ever review - and wanting to save others from the same fate). This is an award winning author who actually writes well. He constructs sentences well and he is obviously intelligent and well read, but it feels like he hates psychology.