Monday, May 27, 2013

"All That Is," by James Salter

James Salter’s long-awaited new novel, “All That Is” (Knopf, 2013), is beautifully written, in a calm, reportorial style that is deceptively simple (owing a bit to Hemingway). It is the story of a man’s life, a man who fought in World War II, then became a successful editor, enjoying the world of literature and all that New York and surroundings had to offer during the 1950s and onward. This character, Philip Bowman, reminds me of a kind of classic fictional character of this age (an age to have fought in WWII) found in the works of many male authors of the mid-20th century, such as John Updike, Norman Mailer, John Cheever, and William Styron. The story is mainly about Bowman’s work, travel, and serial relationships with women (he married once, early, and divorced soon after; the rest of his relationships are fairly brief and often either unexciting or, in one case at least, troubled, in a sad way). I wish there had been more about his work and about the authors he knew, and perhaps less about his love and sex life. Although Bowman is at the center of American literary life, in Manhattan post-WWII, and although he has adventures in Europe and elsewhere, his story, and his character, seem curiously subdued; his emotions seem tamped down, perhaps typical of the way men of that era were supposed to deal with emotion. When he once commits a rather shocking act of revenge on a woman he had loved who betrayed and cheated him, this act stands out dramatically for its breach of his usual understatedness. I have to say, finally, that I admire “All That Is” more than I actually like it.

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