All That Is, James Salter, Picador, 304pp, £18.99 (hardback)
‘It will be a stronger book, pruned, treated as if it were an orphan,’ wrote James Salter to Robert Phelps in September 1974. The book – what would eventually crystallise into Light Years – was a battle. It didn’t help that as it took shape, Salter’s marriage was unravelling. One of Salter’s literary he- roes, André Gide, advocated writers read some lines of the classics before starting each day. Paying heed, Salter turned to Virginia Woolf and Osip Mandelstam, two writers whose immediate influence is scarcely discern- ible in the finished product. Along with updates on the book’s progress, Salter filled Phelps in with details of his London sojourn: ‘The soft sound of morning newspapers being turned and the loose coughs of elderly Eng- lishmen. Smoked haddock for breakfast. Tea.’
Both excerpts from the letter are emblematic of the style of the novel that Salter was wrestling with – so much so they could be choice offcuts. The ornamental (loose coughs) sits pretty beside the functional (haddock, tea). The ‘stronger book…pruned…orphan’ line feels true when we skim it but out of whack when we review it. ‘A stronger book when pruned…’ plugs the gap, provides the stamp of clarity and coherence and reminds us that Salter is a master of ellipsis. When Light Years’s main lead, Viri, starts an affair, Salter withholds the name of his inamorata, furnishing us only with the bare essential female pronouns. Why? Because he sowed the seed fifteen pages earlier when Viri enquired about a pretty girl called Kaya. Later, when Viri’s wife Nedra embarks on her course of adultery, the el- lipsis is even more abrupt, with whole stages omitted: one minute Jivian is sipping a drink with the couple, the next we learn ‘At noon, twice a week, sometimes more, she lay in his bed in the quiet room in back.’ In the first instance Salter is keen to avoid spoon-feeding us. In the second we are force-fed. Both times we are caught by surprise. On other occasions Salter’s prose wrong-foots us or, if we are shrewd, prompts us to mistrust it, ignore its face value, compelling us to hedge our bets to decipher it. ‘Danny fell by chance, as a bird to cat.’ A one-sentence paragraph to maximise dramatic effect. We read on expecting a tumble, an accident, but discover Danny is simply smitten.
But then in Salter’s world falling in love can be just as calamitous as fall- ing from a height. Salter is fascinated by the vertiginous drop, be it the imagined and realised rock-face plummets from Solo Faces (1979) or the witnessed and recreated fighter-plane nosedives in The Hunters (1957). Solo Faces, a novel packed with mountains, opens with Rand and Gary at work on an equally fearsome church roof and the latter’s misstep and near death. It is here Salter also demonstrates his ease at facilitating another kind of drop, this time stylistic: the bathetic plunge. Gary surveys the scene from on high: ‘It was all one great ascending order. Flesh, spirit, gods. Wages, three dollars an hour.’ From the supreme to the humdrum in three neat skips. Falling in love, on the other hand, or simply succumbing to lust, is everywhere in Salter’s oeuvre – scapegoating actions, determining out- comes and vitiating other, less potent, narrative strands. Viri catches sight of Kaya years after his affair has fizzled out and Salter tells us ‘His heart staggered.’ Such short, concise and unpredictable lines transform Salter’s ‘orphan’ of a novel into a much-loved child.
When Salter writes about love – whether that initial fall or its seemingly inevitable decay – he is prone to duping us or only partially delivering, serving up truncated thoughts and emotions and adumbrating the edges of the whole vivid picture. We gladly join his dots, read between his lines. But when writing about sex he tells it straight. A Sport and a Pastime (1967), Salter’s paean to youth and desire, is energised by its no-hold’s-barred erot- icism. We follow his Yale dropout and small-town mademoiselle through provincial France and view each sexual escapade and flouting of taboos through the voyeuristic gaze of his fantasy-fecund narrator. The explicit sex on show is lewd for a small clutch of shrinking violets and candid for the rest of us. The prose is irrigated by the same glorious lyrical wash that saturates the later, longer, and more relationship-heavy Light Years. A Sport and a Pastime is Henry Miller tempered by Alain-Fournier, a fusion requiring as much chutzpah as skill to pull off. A writer of the calibre of James Salter.
For all of this – the stylistic tricks, the sensual interludes, the blunt, overt depictions countervailing that soft, languid dreaminess – all of this can only be employed and achieved by a writer of worth. Updike could do the hard-carnal and the flurries of brittle beauty but was never ambidextrous enough to yoke them in the same sentence. Roth is too muscular and giv- ing, too generous to the reader to ever dilute his narratives with lacunae. Irving is too prolix, DeLillo too busy, both lacking Salter’s measured re- straint. Richard Ford concedes that ‘Salter writes American sentences bet- ter than anybody writing today.’
I would qualify Ford’s assertion and aver that Salter’s American sentences were better than anybody writing then. In The Hunters, we meet Pell, a gambler, whose hands ‘were probably the most educated thing about him, thin and ascetic.’ In the short story, ‘Comet’, we hear of newlyweds Phil- ip and Adele: ‘Her new husband admired her. He could have licked her palms like a calf does salt’ (‘admired’ here being an understated spin on the expected ‘adored’). In another tale, the Barcelona-set ‘Am Strand von Tanger’, the protagonist reflects on Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia: ‘Far off, be- yond his thoughts, the four spires are passing between shadow and glory.’ However, the greatest wealth of gems is to be found in Light Years. An ugly house is ‘the color of chilblains.’ A woman in the last years of her youth resembles ‘a beautiful dinner left out overnight.’ Shortly after Salter switches metaphor, turning her into ‘a mare alone in a field […] waiting for madness, grazing her life away.’ Finicky detail pays dividends: in the iris of a man’s eye is ‘a small dark key like a holy stain.’ Certain images are too wacky for their own good at first blush but dazzlingly apposite on closer inspection: a man’s perfect teeth are like ‘the soft hands that betray fleeing aristocrats.’ As we would expect from a novel about the transitoriness of time there is much on life. Some lines read like maxims (‘Life divides itself with scars like the rings contained within a tree’), other like immutable facts (‘Life is weather’). Cathedrals crop up time and again: the city, for
Nedra, ‘is a cathedral of possessions; its scent is dreams’; later, she leaves an interview ‘like a woman leaving a cathedral, descending the steps, unap- proachable, her face grave’; the colour of empty wine bottles is ‘the color in cathedral naves.’
It is easy to go on and on, with little sifting necessary. Poetry has heavily influenced Salter’s prose. He read Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood in 1954 and discovered ‘The words dizzied me.’ In his memoir, Burning the Days, he mentions that while working on A Sport and a Pastime he was perpetually under the spell of books that were brief – Camus, Faulkner, Marguerite Duras – ‘but every page of which was exalted.’ Similarly Salter, in his stronger books at least, makes every page matter. He has learned from Isaac Babel who, he declares, had ‘the three essentials of greatness’, namely ‘style, structure and authority.’ Past masters have shaped him, per- haps steered him, but ultimately his luminous prose has been born of his own singular talent.
And yet strangely, for all his immaculate craftsmanship, Salter has never properly been awarded his due. If Richard Ford encapsulates his talent, James Wolcott nails his current standing, calling him ‘the most underrated underrated writer.’ In a 1993 interview with the Paris Review Salter dis- closed that he has never had a short story published in the New Yorker – ‘everything has been rejected.’ This revelation elicits incredulity, un- til Salter concludes on a poignant end-note: ‘At one point I came close.’ The standard, and by now shopworn charge leveled at Salter to account for respectable but by no means phenomenal sales is that he is a writer’s writer, unable to enchant the masses. Harold Bloom admitted Solo Faces and Light Years (but, bafflingly, not A Sport and a Pastime, Salter’s most praised book) into his Western Canon, an honour which presumably en- sures a place in literary Valhalla once he has gone but, as a corollary, ap- pears to exclude commercial success while he is still with us.
For those hidden hordes of paid-up apostles Salter’s unrecognised great- ness is as mystifying as the ‘writer’s writer’ tag is irksome. While not ex- actly a prolific writer, no one can fault Salter’s impressive range. Since leaving the air-force aged thirty-one he has produced novels, short stories, travel writing, journalism, screenplays, a memoir and even a cookbook. However, in terms of artistic range in his fiction – what Henry James called ‘variety of attempt’ – Salter has demonstrated a reluctance to experiment, flitting between the relative security of two tried and tested styles, both in keeping with the subject matter in question. Thus The Hunters and Solo Faces, semi-macho tales of high stakes and derring-do, come clad in corre- spondingly sturdy, robust prose; A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years (the latter described by Salter as a book about ‘the worn stones of conjugal life’) with their finer calibrations and sombre tones are written in more wistful and elegiac language to reflect the ephemeral relationships and passing of time. Perhaps Salter chose to stick with these two styles after his disastrous foray into Faulkner-territory for his second novel, The Arm of Flesh (1961). Bustling with multiple and consequently unknowable narrators, and teem- ing with a glut of ideas that congeal rather than cohere, it was more ‘Dead on Arrival’ than the As I Lay Dying it sought to emulate. Rewriting it years later and trussing it up under a different title (Cassada) had only the effect of embalming, not resuscitation.
But even the most surefooted of writers are permitted the odd misstep. Fail- ure of another sort encroached when Robert Redford turned down the film- script he commissioned about mountain-climbing. Salter had enjoyed a run of successful screenplays (one of which became Downhill Racer (1968) and starred Redford), not to mention stints at directing. Perhaps the writing was already on the wall, penned by Salter himself, for ten years earlier in The Hunters there is a scene in which the artist, Miyata, comments on the complexity of film-making with protagonist Cleve: ‘It must be the most difficult of the arts,’ we hear, ‘combining all the others; and for it to be perfect, every part of it must be.’ Salter walked away from the movies after Redford’s rejection and has since made no secret of his disenchantment with the industry (although he did have the last laugh as he refashioned his refused script into the unrejectable Solo Faces).
By rights Salter should be following Philip Roth’s lead and jacking it in. He will be eighty-eight this year, longer than most people live, let alone write. His back catalogue may not be lengthy for a man of this age but it has sufficient heft and has ‘dizzied’ enough readers to justify finally and de- servedly resting on his laurels. A new novel now, a whole thirty-four years after the last one, could be rash. If high-volume productivity in a writer’s Lebensabend is more likely to evince a tapering talent than smooth consist- ency (Terrorist, The Widows of Eastwick) then what are the odds of a late novel sparkling from a writer who hasn’t written one in decades and who was never considered big league even in his heyday?
But if Salter cared about odds he probably wouldn’t have flown over one hundred combat missions in Korea. Yes, he has written a new novel – All That Is – and precisely because of the yawning hiatus, and the fact it may well be Salter’s swansong, we ought to treat it with a due sense of occasion: if not shouting from the rooftops and unfurling the red carpet for its grand entrance then at least coddling it as we would a latecomer we had given up for lost. Salter could well have been incubating it for some time; after all, Random House initially set the publishing date for Burning the Days as 1989, but Salter didn’t get round to turning in the completed manuscript until 1996.
Tardy or not, All That Is is with us. The gracious response would be to say it feels as if Salter has never been away. But tonally and stylistically the novel is a thoroughly different kettle of fish from Solo Faces and light years away from his career high-point. Worse, its opening is weak. We follow the naval battles of Okinawa, a pivotal moment in the Pacific arena during World War Two, and specifically the exploits of two officers Kimmel and Bowman. What should be exciting is desultory, part-history lesson, part- second-rate adventure writing – more the domain of James Clavell than James Salter. One alarming paragraph even fills us in on what distinguished kamikaze pilots from other Japanese pilots. This first chapter ends with fleets of struck ships listing and heeling, and the prose with it. The only saving grace is kept till last: an explosion bursts from deep in the sea and from it ‘A pillar of flame a mile high rose, a biblical pillar.’ It’s a simple but powerful image, intensified by its position amid a glut of cliché.
Mercifully, the war ends and Salter swerves off and begins afresh for chap- ter two. Kimmel, a man overboard, has been jettisoned. Philip Bowman is our lead. He returns home to a hero’s welcome, attends Harvard and then begins a career in publishing in New York City. Fellow editor Neil Eddins thinks him a gentleman, ‘the type they used to have.’ Bowman meets and woos Vivian, a girl with ‘a riveting face that God had stamped with the sim- ple answer to life’ and a father with a four-hundred-acre farm in Upperville, Virginia. Their marriage prospers and then founders. Many chapters later, Bowman looks back on his time spent with his first and only wife:
The thing about Vivian was that she was – Bowman hadn’t really understood it at the time – so ineradicably part of it, the drink- ing, the big houses, and cars with mud-crusted boots and bags of dog food lying in back, the self-approval and money. All of it had seemed inessential, even amusing.
Vivian comes across as a subdued Daisy Buchanan. Bowman is no Gatsby who yearns for her once she has gone but it is once the marriage is behind him that he becomes successful, both in work, as a rising star in Robert Baum’s publishing house, and at play, charming the ladies and making a name for himself in New York’s fashionable bars and restaurants. ‘“Well if it isn’t Mr. New York,”’ gushes Vivian’s sister when he bumps into her in the hallway of the Plaza years later. And so he operates, this gentleman, a talent-spotting city-slicker prowling his turf, milking life, exuding confi- dence, ‘at ease in the visible world, familiar.’
All That Is has no claim to be a Bildungsroman seeing as Salter chooses to begin with that snapshot in the Pacific and excise Bowman’s youth. The book does, however, track a man’s life and learning curve, from Bowman’s naval experience on, making it a Bildungsroman of sorts, an ongoing voy- age of discovery. Bowman’s formative years are not the omitted childhood but that detailed baptism of fire at sea. His conduct and bravery during the war certainly accounts for his civil (‘gentleman’) behaviour and brimming reserves of self-assurance in adulthood.
The novel, then, takes the form of a life trajectory, and Bowman is a flawed human being, which means Salter can shower us with sunshine and golden opportunities but also the obverse – the sand in the eye, the fly in the oint- ment – which, if we’re being honest, is always more of a draw in fiction. Bowman meets and cohabits with smart, witty, beautiful women but in time love sours, new temptations arise, liaisons become infidelities. Again and again Bowman falls and each time Salter convinces us that Vivian or Enid or Christine or Katherine is The One. As in life, those we least expect to die are ruthlessly and prematurely bumped off. Bowman’s mother goes gaga and fails to recognise him. Salter tells us that in the bowels of Penn Station where trains arrive and leave ‘overlapping voices announcing departures filled the air, godlike and final.’ So too is Salter as author godlike and final throughout, almost arbitrarily ordaining who will die and who will survive.
It is when Christine screws Bowman over that we realise his luck has run out and he is no longer invincible. The upshot is that our man about town is more like us and consequently more identifiable and crucially more inter- esting. In one bravura scene Bowman runs into Christine’s daughter Anet, a girl thirty years his junior and someone he hasn’t seen for some time, since the split from her mother. Instead of catching up and walking off he takes her on a cab ride round New York, wines and dines her in a restaurant on Second Avenue and then sleeps with her. Later in the week he whisks her away to Paris, only to jilt her at the end and fly home alone. Finally he has avenged the cheating mother by leading astray and dashing the hopes of the daughter. His act is swift and merciless and completely out of the blue. We are hoodwinked, having believed this girl mattered. Once again Salt- er employs ellipsis only this time he conceals whole emotions and grand schemes: simply stated, we didn’t think Bowman had it in him.
More predictable, though by no means unwelcome, is the return of Salter’s penchant for leaving his main characters hanging while he goes off on tan- gents to flesh out secondary, even tertiary characters – some of whom are there solely for the thumbnail sketch, to variegate a scene or highlight a foible. Some reappear chapters later, others are snuffed out after their ré- sumés are complete. We could accuse Salter of doodling in the margins rather than applying himself to his main narrative until we remember Tol- stoy and Dickens did this regularly in their doorstop novels to emphasise how fleetingly people come and go in our lives, only rarely sticking around for the long haul. Why should Salter be proscribed from doing the same in a novel of three hundred pages? His in-and-out cameos include larger- than-life Liz Bohannon, a movie star manqué, and Falstaffian publishing supremo Bernard Wiberg. Kimmel, left for dead in the water in chapter one is resurrected in the bar of the Algonquin in chapter twenty-nine. Mini- tales are cached within tales. ‘They are like fragments in which reflections lie like broken pieces,’ Salter writes in Light Years; ‘collect them and a greater shape begins to form, the story of stories appears.’ Artists, agents and writers pop up to showcase their own talents and hypocrisies and help sublimate the glad-handing grind of boozy lunches and afterhours parties into bacchanal hedonism.
Salter jumps from character to character but also takes the reader from New York to further flung destinations. We get a side-trip to London as we did in Light Years, together with jaunts to Spain and Paris. The problem with a non-native writer utilising these particular locations is that the impressions and descriptions have to be special, viewed skew-whiff or with a gimlet gaze, so often have they been used before. As ever, Salter writes wonder- fully on New York – raised in Manhattan, authentically inscribing the hum and the dazzle on the page, he is Mr. New York, even if the New Yorker won’t have him. He is good on Spain. Franco is still in power and so the country has ‘bright skies but was shadowed.’ Sadly his Paris observations bring nothing new to the table. Postwar London seems to have been chosen only to subvert Bowman’s hoary old perceptions of the place as a ‘rich, imagined city with its legendary figures, its polished men and women out of Evelyn Waugh, the Virginias, the Catherines, and Janes, narrow-mind- ed, assured, only dimly aware of any life other than their own.’ We know the narrative is in trouble when Salter picks up from where he left off in chapter one and resumes his history lesson. Towards the end of the novel, Kenneth Wells, another walk-on part, lectures (yes, lectures) Bowman and his girlfriend du jour Ann, and by extension the reader, on the origin of a bottle of wine:
‘Very good wine,’ Wells said. ‘It comes from the Veneto, probably the most civilised part of Italy. Venice was the great city of the world for centuries. When London was filthy and sprawling, Ven- ice was a queen. Shakespeare laid four of his plays there, Othello, The Merchant, Romeo and Juliet … ’
‘Romeo and Juliet,’ Ann said. ‘Wasn’t that in Verona?’
‘Well, that’s nearby,’ Wells said.
Ann’s correction endeth the lesson, although Wells does go on to offer sightseeing tips. ‘If you go there, tell me, and I’ll tell you what to see,’ he adds. Unfortunately, Salter seems unaware that he has told us more than he should. When his travelogues work they still feel out of place, as if cribbed from his travel book There and Then. When they don’t he sounds less like a novelist and more like a pushy tour guide.
Other rashes of verbosity erupt. When characters aren’t prattling on about place they are presenting potted histories of people, specifically famous deads. Bowman tells Vivian all about Ezra Pound (‘Well, he’s a tower- ing poet … ’). In Seville Salter waxes lyrical on García Lorca. Soon we get Reinhard Heydrich, Lord Byron, Francis Bacon, their lives filleted but served up in indigestible chunks. Bowman even synopsises for Vivian an entire Hemingway story. To be fair, Bowman, an editor of fiction and non- fiction, is allowed – even expected – to discuss art, history and literature; the problem is that each lowdown on a cultural icon feels like a crude graft- on rather than a neat insertion. ‘A story is an engagement, although it can be protracted,’ Salter said in an interview with The Millions. ‘A novel is a campaign […] In a novel there is room for anything.’ Yes, but not every- thing.
And yet despite these failings All That Is keeps us engrossed. We continue to turn the pages – still the mark of a good book – chiefly to learn of Bowman’s next move. Those pages may have a scarcer supply of gems than before but this is James Salter and so we should be grateful for what we receive. ‘The necklace of the George Washington Bridge hung like a strand of jewels’ sounds like a writer down to his last or, conversely, like a writer starting out; but we can’t fault lines like ‘Her beauty was unwary’ or ‘Outside, the day was made up of various silences. The hours had come to a stop.’ Certain images feel redolent of earlier ones, especially those bound by colour. White, for Salter, is inviolable: Vivian’s panties are ‘a white that seemed sacred’; the cathedral at St Etienne in A Sport and a Pastime has endured through the years ‘like a white myth.’ When Anet discovers Bow- man has upped and left her ‘her heart seemed to scatter’ – only a partial remove from Viri’s heart staggering at the sight of Kaya. Other images are recycled: Bowman enjoys free-rein sex with Christine and ‘Afterwards they were like victims,’ is borrowed from a scene in Light Years in which Viri and Nedra ‘lay in the dark like two victims’ – only here there was no sex and they are spent in a different way, casualties of marriage.
Salter proves still capable of nifty legerdemain, adept at nipping and tuck- ing key details and leaving us to extrapolate from skimpy facts. A waiter addresses Vivian’s father: ‘Jus’ fine, Mistuh Amussen.’ Vivian calls her two veteran chorus-boy neighbors Noel and Cole. We are never formally told that characters are attracted to one another but we can deduce so from the array of twitches, batted eyelashes and bumbling or purposeful sweet-talk. Dates are elided, with milestone events signposting where we are. At one juncture Bowman finds it ‘eerily still’ in the office but no one has left, they are listening to the news – ‘The president had been shot in Dallas.’ We hear of Vietnam and then suddenly ‘We’re in the middle of the woman thing […] They don’t want to be desired unless they feel like it.’ Susan Sontag appears and her hair helps us fix our bearings – not the pure black of the young incarnation but ‘with a great shock of white running through it.’ In his fiction, Salter slavishly follows Hemingway’s dictum ‘Remember to get the weather in your damn book,’ and changing weather and seasons are more than decorative adjuncts, they are a surrogate compass for navigat- ing the next chapter in a life or a gauge for assessing a mood. For Nedra in
Light Years ‘The seasons became her shelter, her raiment.’ We know that Bowman is ageing because he sees himself in a mirror behind a bar and notes he is ‘shadowed and silvery’. Later, we know he is aged because he spies beneath his tennis shorts, ‘a pair of legs that seemed to belong to an older man. He mustn’t, he realised, be going around the house in shorts like this when Ann was there, probably not even in the cotton kimono that barely came to the knee or in an undershirt.’ Time has crept up on Bowman, but also the reader, unawares.
As befits a novel about a man growing up by a man grown up there are musings on mortality in the closing pages. ‘He thought about death but he had never been able to imagine it, the unbeing while all else existed. The idea of passing from this world to another, the next, was too fantastic to believe.’ Is it Bowman or Salter speaking to us here? We close the book and are faced with a more important question: does its writer still possess the old magic? Absolutely. Those who had little faith should hang their heads in shame. The odd fluffed line and didactic spurt have no correlation to age; any writer at any point of their career commits similar sins. Salter’s infe- licities stain the occasional page but can’t mar the whole work. Six years on from Richard Ford’s eulogy, and with current competition to contend with, can anyone (least of all Ford) still say Salter is writing American sentences better than anybody today? Who knows. Who cares. All That Is, for all its merits, won’t buck any trends or pave new ways, nor is it likely to be a blockbusting Franzenstein monster. It is a consolidator not a game-changer, confirming what we already knew.
Salter admitted to the Paris Review that he was a late-bloomer as a man of letters. ‘I’m hoping that a few green sprigs are still going to appear.’ Which throws up another, final question: All That Is – is that all? His previous book was his well-received cookbook, Life is Meals: A Food Lover’s Book of Days. A one-off or now a substitute for fiction? With luck, writing the novel has whetted his appetite for producing more of the same, impress- ing on him where his true talent lies. That said, the cookbook contains an interesting recipe for pineapple sorbet.