Book Review: All That Is, by James Salter

All That Is“There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.”

Hmmm. I’m of two minds on this one. On the one hand: WOW. James Salter is an incredible writer. His descriptive style is flawless: clear, concise, creative, and imparted with gorgeous prose that has a poet’s precision. On one character’s drunk mother: “Her voice slurred a little but she rode over it as if it were a fleck of tobacco on her tongue, as if she could pause and wipe it away with a finger.” Surveying a party, an “older woman with a nose as long as an index finger was eating greedily, and the man with her blew his nose in the linen napkin, a gentleman, then.”

My copy of this book is a sea of highlights: fascinating descriptions, intriguing observations, and, frequently, just a neat turn of phrase that I liked the sound of. I think the last time I left a book so smeared with highlights was the last time I read a book by E.M. Forster. Salter’s skill with a pen definitely makes him deserve the company, although I would say that Salter’s style has a slightly more mid-to-late-20th century feel to it. There are passages in All That Is that could come straight out of a Salinger novel or a Raymond Carver story, and I can think of no higher praise than that. It makes me ashamed that until this book was released, I had never heard of James Salter.

AllThatIs2I suppose that isn’t so far-fetched, given that it had been thirty-five years since Salter’s last novel. I wasn’t even born yet. But in that time he did release two volumes of short stories, one volume of poetry, a collection of travel essays, and a book about food (the last one written with his wife). So the book nerd in me does feel a wee bit chastened. Mostly, though, I feel relieved that I did find him. There’s a joy in discovering someone who can write so well that their talent alone thrills you as you read.

The problem is that the thrill of Salter’s writing is the only thrill to be found here. For long stretches of time it feels like the narrative is going nowhere. Yes, the writer is skilled enough to keep you going, but there were countless times during the process that I found myself wondering where, exactly, the destination was, and when we might finally get there. It dangerously toes the line of plodding, and in some cases I would argue that it goes over. Even if only by a hair’s breadth. Part of me feels bad criticizing this, since it seems to be a goal of Salter’s to revel in the quotidian details of Philip Bowman’s life. After all, the quotidian is what we spend a great deal of time on in our own lives. Which may just make it the essence of life. Whether or not you want to read about it or escape from it in your reading time is a decision only you can make.

AllThatIs3Characters come and go, sometimes all too briefly. Some get a short glance while others step into the spotlight. Again, this is meant to mirror everyday life. In his 1997 memoir Salter notes: “If you can think of life, for a moment, as a large house with a nursery, living and dining rooms, bedrooms, study, and so forth, all unfamiliar and bright, the chapters which follow are, in a way, like looking through the windows of this house. Certain occupants will be glimpsed only briefly. Visitors come and go. At some windows, you may wish to stay longer, but alas. As with any house, all within cannot be seen.” So it is with the narrative of All That Is.

I’d be lying if I told you that I didn’t occasionally find it frustrating. Not just because of the sensation of plodding. Salter is a strong enough writer to deserve a little patience. But because it frequently doesn’t feel like there’s a point to it all. Maybe that’s another statement about life. It would often be true. But to me it leaves a cold distance between me and the narrative. As much as I found Salter’s writing to be thrilling, I never much felt like embracing it, if that makes any sense. What I will remember about All That Is is not a feeling that was provoked, not a theme that I will remember and call back to, but, simply, the prose. To me, that makes it an incomplete experience.

There’s one last issue that I have with this novel. There’s a huge problem with representation of women. For the first half of the book I was willing to shrug it away, arguing to myself that since the writing feels like an artifact from the 1950s, perhaps it was an intentional goal to mimic the intense focus on men: their ideals, feelings, and role in society. But when a man is discovered in flagrante delicto with a female cashier and Salter writes that “The cashier claimed rape but then regained her poise,” it is extremely disquieting. To say the least.

Grade: B-

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