James Salter has waited several years to publish his most recent novel. The result is unusually intelligent and graceful storytelling.
All That IsPublisher: Knopf
Length: 304 pages
Author: James Salter
Publication date: 2013-04
"James Salter", the name, hovered in the back of my mind for several years. I would see a paperback copy of A Sport and a Pastime, or maybe Salter's name would come up in a review of a Philip Roth novel. (Roth and Salter are both aging American men who have devoted a good deal of ink to the subject of complex heterosexual relationships. Both are also known for writing frankly erotic passages.)
Salter has often been called "a writer's writer", and his fans have bemoaned the fact that the American public has mostly overlooked his work. And so the publication of All That Is, Salter's new novel, spurred me to action. At last, with the novelist in his 80s, I have entered Salter-land.
It's worth noting that Salter had not published a novel for a few decades before All That Is. The many years between the publication of his novels may partly account for the unusually high quality of his writing.
Salter's new novel concerns a white man, Bowman, who goes off to Okinawa to serve the US in the second World War. You could say that this is the moment he passes from childhood to adulthood. He sees kamikaze pilots, exploding ships, men jumping overboard and fighting for their lives... It would be hard to remain a child after seeing such things.
The early passages suggest that chance and randomness will be a major theme in this novel. Why? An acquaintance of Bowman's jumps ship when he imagines that a kamikaze pilot is en route. In fact, this particular ship is safe. The acquaintance gets picked up by another ship, which actually does get attacked by a kamikaze pilot. The acquaintance jumps again, and gets picked up by a third ship, which is, in turn, attacked by another kamikaze pilot. Somehow, the acquaintance makes it out of this chaos alive.
Here, Salter seems to be saying: Make any predictions you'd like. There is no grand design in life, and events tend to unfold in ways you couldn't quite imagine. My novel will surprise you.
From here, it's difficult to summarize the plot of All That Is, because each scene is so singular and mysterious. You expect to encounter a character who has a major obstacle to surmount, then watch as the character surmounts the obstacle. But Salter doesn't work that way. Each chapter is a brief episode. Many of the episodes follow Bowman, but not all. Bowman has a little sidekick, Eddins, who appears and disappears throughout the novel. While Bowman pursues the life of a Don Juan, Eddins settles down with a wife and a child.
A conventional novel would draw subtle comparisons of Eddins and Bowman throughout, but again Salter defies expectations. There are passages where neither main character appears. For example, Bowman has a father-in-law with a life entirely separate from Bowman's life. This father-in-law gets his own chapter, even though he exits Bowman's life rather quickly. What is Salter suggesting? Is he trying to say that the people we drift away from still make a stamp on our lives, whether or not we are conscious of the impression left?
Like Matthew Weiner of Mad Men, Salter doesn't give a damn whether or not you "like" his characters. (I often thought of Weiner while reading Salter's work, because Salter's protagonist, Bowman, is enigmatic and promiscuous -- more than a little Don Draper-esque.) Salter resists the urge to make Bowman sympathetic. It can be difficult to stick with him for a hundred pages, simply because his behavior can be so grating.
And yet, Salter seems to be saying, it's not a writer's job to introduce you to a fictional boy-next-door. The writer has no obligation to create stories about appealing people. The writer's job is just to weave a beautiful pattern, like a very fine rug. (Colm Toibin makes this argument in his collection of essays, New Ways to Kill Your Mother, which was published by Scribner in 2012.) Indeed, Salter certainly succeeds in creating an intricate, fascinating pattern.
A major part of this pattern is Salter's absorbing dialogues. As Salter knows, two people rarely reveal everything to each other; a person is rarely 100 percent transparent. When you read a Salter passage, you are consistently aware that the characters are holding things back; you aren't getting all the information. And this is just like life. The characters are riddles for one another, and at times they are even riddles for themselves.
Salter describes Bowman's most devastating act, a decision to sleep with his ex's 20-year-old daughter, in an unforgettable way. It seems that Bowman doesn't fully understand what he is doing even as he does it. And only afterward does the enormity of his bad behavior start to sink in. I think this is exactly what happens in real life: A person who does a terrible thing must be slightly mysterious to himself. He must be confused and unfocused, because he needs to justify the act in his mind. Rarely do most people set out to do terrible things with the awareness that they are about to perform hurtful, ugly acts.
I also appreciated that Salter's dialogue contained a good deal of buried truth -- truth I didn't recognize the first time I read the novel. For example, in one scene, Bowman meets a beautiful woman, Christine, for the first time. When you read the book, you don't realize that Christine is somewhat unreliable. You just get swept up in Bowman's besotted image of Christine.
But when you read the book a second time, aware of what will happen between Bowman and Christine, the initial statements Christine makes seem much more slippery, much more alarming. She makes a false statement and ignores Bowman when he alerts her to her lie. She drops a hint that she is perhaps slightly obsessed with real estate. It's a tribute to Salter's subtlety that he so effectively places little clues throughout his novel. You simply can't predict what will happen, but when you revisit the novel, you notice that Salter was quietly building up to the denouement -- even in the novel's earliest pages.
There's a time-honored rule about fiction: it should be surprising but inevitable. You should arrive at the last page with the feeling, Gosh, I would never have predicted this outcome, but it seems exactly right; it seems to be the thing that had to happen. Salter's way of achieving this effect is masterful. He never seems to be working from an outline; he never seems to be manipulating pawns on a chess board. Events occur in an apparently random way, and it's only after you reach the last page that you begin to recognize the intricacy and intelligence of Salter's design.
At the start, Salter skips a conventional epigraph and instead simply notes that life begins to seem dreamlike as you age. Writing is one of a few ways to achieve something like permanence. The novel supports Salter's contention. He has taken a few strange, fragile moments and committed them permanently to the page. The novel is like a love song to life -- a way of saying, "Here, look at this: Existence is painful, strange, and often amazingly beautiful."
Lastly, I'd like to compliment Salter for one of his sneakiest and most powerful decisions. Unlike many contemporary writers of fiction, Salter chooses not to include a page of acknowledgments at the end of the book. I admire this decision, and think of it as a throwback to the days of Nabokov and Joyce -- writers who felt no compulsion to list names of their friends and family at the ends of their novels. By leaving out acknowledgments, Salter preserves a nice aura of mystery. He takes the focus off the writer and keeps it on the story, where it belongs.
This novel deserves a vast readership, particularly among young, aspiring writers. Salter has a good deal to teach anyone willing to listen.