by James Salter; Knopf, 2013; 289 pages; $26.95
After a vivid rendering of Japan’s destructive nature at the beginning and end of World War II, James Salter’s “All That Is” becomes an understated, restrained portrait of one man’s life from the mid-20th century on. It is a devastating portrait of an incomplete, fairly ordinary man and, quite honestly, one of the best recent novels to be found.
Navy midshipman Philip Bowman survives the kamikaze defense of Okinawa and after the end of the war begins Harvard as a biology major. He wants to be a journalist, but falls into an opportunity at a New York publishing house and quickly rises to the level of book editor.
New York and Bowman are made for each other. Immediately after World War II, publishing still remains very much non-corporate. It is a smattering of small firms kept alive through lunches at the right restaurants, legendary conversations and deals sealed with handshakes. Bowman is a charming and perfect fit.
Is he happy? Well, not exactly. What eventually consumes him is finding a house outside the city, a house to serve as evidence of the life he supposedly has. He’s so focused on the “house,” he even has one stolen right out from under him. He’s happier, really, with short-term commitment — and occasional sex. What he can’t seem to settle into, of course, is “home.”
He marries Vivian, a young woman from old money, but that marriage soon sours. On a business trip to London (at a wickedly stilted costume party), he is very taken with the married Enid, but that relationship never seems to move beyond infatuation. He is enchanted by Christine only to eventually find her petulant carpetbaggery beyond belief.
He remains what Saul Bellow has famously called a “dangling man.” Bowman grabs at opportunity and but doesn’t know what to do afterward. Late in the book, Salter says of Bowman, “He had believed in love — all his life he had — but now it was likely to be too late.”
It is the sweep of “All That Is” that is its strength. Characters move in and out of Bowman’s life — some given only a few pages — and we know them thanks to Salter’s prowess in creating worlds for them with not one wasted word. He says of the city mid-way through the novel, “It was like a tremendous opera with an infinite cast and tumultuous as well as solitary scenes.” So is his novel.
“All That Is” is Salter’s first novel in 34 years. In fact, Salter is in his 80s. Those who haven’t read him before will find an admirable collection of both his fiction and nonfiction awaiting them. Those who have will embrace “All That Is” as a brilliant career capstone as it profoundly examines what it means for one man — and for us all — to be alive.
Steven Whitton is an English professor at Jacksonville State University.