APRIL 30, 2013
JAMES SALTER’S ALL THAT IS is a novel out of time, a piece of Modernism that’s washed up on our technology-strewn, social-media-saturated shores. The protagonist, Philip Bowman, starts off as a naval officer in the Pacific during World War II, then goes on to live an intellectual’s life in his native New York City as a book editor for a major fictional publishing house. Three women become the great loves of his life, though others pass through, as do interesting invented figures from the literary world — writers, editors, agents, publishers. Bowman travels to London, Spain, and Paris, and also visits the monied circles of Virginia, which could very well be a foreign country to a city boy raised by a working-class, single mother. There’s gambling, bullfighting, and dog racing, a lot of drinking and more than a few alcoholics; the phrase “a case of the clap” appears, bringing Henry Miller to mind. Bowman’s passionate about women, an avid reader, a lover of nature and, in particular, swimming and water, but he’s distant as main characters go: cool, close-lipped, sometimes stoic.
If All That Is sounds generic, that’s because, in a way, it is. It could be any of the great novels to appear during the first half of the 20th century, when Modernism and a certain macho brand of minimalism were in fashion.
I don’t mean to come across as cavalier, because I am a great fan of the Modernists, but when distilled to topic (men who love parties, art, women, and Europe, and are haunted or wounded by war) and attitude, Modernism could be just as limiting as any genre, and the ways in which Salter’s new novel conforms to its conventions is both a strength and a weakness. Because no matter how great that read-between-the-lines style is, no matter how much we love taking a trip to Hemingway’s Spain or Miller’s Paris, or eavesdropping on Fitzgerald’s brilliant, damaged, upper-class sots, we also live in a very different time, and have come to expect different things from our literature.
So I couldn’t help but feel put off by Philip Bowman, a friendly enough guy, but one I wouldn’t say I got to know very well, and whose motivations, apart from sexual desire, felt opaque. Late in the book, when Bowman runs into a former shipmate from the war, his lady companion expresses surprise — “You were in the navy. I didn’t know that.” Like her, I wished he would open up a bit.
Salter excels at descriptions of both place and character, and I could’ve wandered the streets of Seville while being regaled with stories of García Lorca’s life and death for pages. The novel’s side characters come across as more vibrant than the protagonist in beautiful, brief sketches. Bernard Wiberg, a European publisher who appears more than once over the course of decades, becomes an especially bright presence, full of ruminations on history and art. Take, for example, Wiberg musing on the life of the artist Francis Bacon, an excellent example of how much depth Salter packs into a few lines, the pounding rhythm of his consonant choices tempered by soft assonance and a dash of internal rhyme:
Wiberg had never met Bacon, he had only read about him, the disorderly life, the years in Morocco with young men quite cheap. In Bacon there was a sheen of awful sanctimony. There was love and disgust of the flesh and staggering dissolution. There was all that had happened in the world during one’s life. Bacon also had the gift of language. He had gotten it in Irish kitchens and drawing rooms and in the stables where, as a boy, he’d been had by the grooms. His eloquence came from his father’s coldness and disapproval and the great freedom of finding his own life in Berlin with its vices and Paris, of course. He belonged to the netherworld with its bitchy language, gossip, and betrayals. He had never concealed himself or tried to conform to any idea of artist, which allowed him to become a greater one. His lovers had drunk or drugged themselves to death, and amid the rubbish of it all, the taste for fine clothes and disdain of what others were tied to, his idleness and obsessions had spattered the walls and set him free. He never painted over on a canvas. It was always once and for all.
In these moments, Salter demonstrates not only mastery at sentencing — perfection is reading these gems aloud — but at narration, skipping from character to character with the ease of a smooth stone across a river. One early chapter, a party scene at Christmas in Virginia, is a tour-de-force of the unlimited third person, unfolding like a Robert Altman tracking shot on the page, taking us from room to room and perspective to perspective with verve and wit.
Salter’s a funny writer, particularly when describing sex, where legs are arranged liked tripods, a penis sinks inside a woman like a ship, and climaxes come with rabbit-like cries escaping from lips. “Her buttocks were glorious, it was like being in a bakery,” he writes, and I’ll never look at buns of any sort in the same way again.
The publishing industry figures allow Salter to deliver sage writing advice — “I don’t normally like a writer to give me too much of a character’s thoughts and feelings” seems particularly apt here — as well as brilliant anecdotes that tell a history of New York City literary life in brief. Jumping onto these characters’ backs for a few paragraphs or pages provides a welcome breath from the slow crawl of Bowman’s life story.
Because what does Bowman want? A companion who revs his loins and equals him in intellect and appetite, appreciates the city but escapes to the country for the weekend, enjoys Europe and reading, and who, apparently, doesn’t want kids, as paternity never seems to cross Bowman’s mind, which is perhaps better off — his interest in young women, the daughters of friends and lovers, is kind of creepy. Somewhere after lover number two and before lover number three my interest in his story began to lag. What obstacles lie in Bowman’s way he places there himself through bad decision making, and I wanted to shake him, tell him to wise up, go see a therapist, for my sake as well as his. Bowman gets to be a bit of a bore.
What’s more, an undercurrent of chauvinism flows beneath his story. Bowman cheats on his wife, but feels bitter and furious after she leaves him. When we check in on a former flame in England, we find she’s lost to drink and living in the past, struggling with money problems, and looks “a little worn,” “her glamour […] fatigued.” Bowman’s most passionate ex-lover assumes a model’s pose in her daughter’s wedding photos, at age 42 “not yet entirely prepared to let youth have the stage.” When she betrays him, Bowman avenges himself on her in the most heinous way, bedding and then abandoning her 20-year-old daughter. As the novel progresses, most women, with Bowman’s mother Beatrice a notable exception, suffer the ravages of age, while the men retain an attractiveness. Bowman’s final companion is in her 30s, while he’s a man of at least 60, too embarrassed by his old man legs to go around in shorts, but still handsome and virile.
While it is tempting to over-value the classic cut of this tale, reminiscent, as it is, of beloved source material, All That Is feels dated on arrival. Its moments of greatness — and there are many — don’t go far enough to enliven what is, ultimately, a stale tale of a quiet, distant man hoping some woman will open him up, all the while keeping his companions, the world, and, most importantly, the reader, at arm’s length.