All That Is – James Salter

All that is

This is the first of US writer James Salter’s books I’ve read, and his first novel in 30 years, and also his last. He died earlier this year. This is the story of Philip Bowman an American boy from New Jersey whose life really begins with his naval service on a ship in the Pacific at the end of world war two. It follows him through Harvard, the New York publishing scene and the quiet towns of the Hamptons, the moneyed horse country of Virginia and to Europe, across the next 40 or so years of his life. But it is really the story of Bowman’s search for love, something that eludes him for most of his life.

The story is told in close third person and meanders along with no real plot but with frequent detours into the lives of its many minor characters and its is an enjoyable read as a result.  Salter’s writing is described as ‘ravishingly sensual’, ‘a beautiful novel with sufficient love, heartbreak’ etc and so it is. Bowman’s doomed relationships, both those that he withdraws from and those where his heart is broken are heart-felt. Salter has a particular knack of baldly relating the key action that seals his character’s devastation in such a short, spare way that it packs a huge punch, and then moves on. It is a trick that takes immense skill.

But the betrayal by one lover and Bowman’s subsequent revenge really shows what this character is all about, and it is not pretty. It puts every relationship that has gone before in a new and not very attractive light. There’s no emotional pay-off for such a devastating act of revenge, which as a reader is hard to accept.

I can’t help but think that if this book had been written by a woman, it would have gone unnoticed or dismissed, being as it is about finding love. There was also an undertone of sexism in all of Bowman’s relationships with women that I could not entirely dismiss as being ‘of the time’. Lust and sex are fine but I wanted for a protagonist who had a few more sides to him.

Read this for the beautiful prose and pace, but not if you want a strong plot line.