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Books: Style and substance in James Salter’s All That Is

<p><em>All That Is</em> book cover</p>

All That Is book cover

To call someone a “writer’s writer” often carries an air of backhanded compliment — a writer whose style is such that it appears to only appeal to a narrow priesthood of other writers instead of the general reader. Concurrently, the phrase often signals that only people who care about “real” writing — that is to say, about literary fiction and that somewhat dubious, somewhat glorious quality known as literariness — can possibly appreciate writers who put a great deal of care and craft into the construction of their sentences. After all, the binary division of the reading public into those who “read for the story” and those who “read for how the story is told” must be upheld — woe betide those who insist that both or valid, or that to strive to integrate the approaches is a fool’s errand that will necessarily diminish either the page-turning or literary qualities of a novel.

Putting aside all the great novels that are indeed page-turners with finely wrought sentences and paragraphs, the division isn’t entirely a fiction. There are many who will turn towards or away from James Salter’s novel All That Is precisely because of that division. Salter has been a “writer’s writer” since at least the 1960s, when his short novel A Sport and a Pastime proved that a novel could be both poetic and erotic without being embarrassing or an oxymoron. Salter’s output over 50 years of writing has been small (much of his time taken up with the irresistible income that is screenwriting), but brilliant in intensity, stunning in style and incandescent in its lyricism.

Ah, that bugbear for those who read for the story, the word lyricism. But there’s no better description of what ultimately drives and redeems Salter’s new novel, his first in decades. It is the lyricism of his sentences — not precisely poetic, but musical, muscular and full of a distinctive, somewhat mesmerizing rhythm — that carries the story, such as it is. There isn’t much of a plot, and even less than that other bugbear, “arc,” in Salter’s book. It simply describes the life and loves of one Philip Bowman, from his time as a very young officer on a ship in the Pacific during the Second World War to his job as a book editor, his first marriage, his affairs, and his slow approach toward old age. That’s all — and, as Salter implies with his title, all there is in any life: a moment or two of high drama, pinpoints of lesser drama and a long unfolding and unraveling of days and nights.

In many hands, fiction fashioned from such slices of life often winds up feeling very thin indeed. But Salter’s technique, the very style of his prose, makes this not simply a collection of well-wrought turns to be admired by aficionados of literariness, but an actual page-turner, thanks to the way Salter continually branches off from his protagonist’s story into the lives and stories of those whose paths intersect with Bowman’s. Again and again, Salter will suddenly slide away, often for no more than a paragraph or two, into the fullness of characters major and minor, and each time he does so he manages to communicate an entire world, both mundane and miraculous. It’s as if the novel is constantly sprouting fascinating new flowers along the main line of its narrative, and Salter’s deftness at sketching the fullness of a milieu or a person is astonishingly compelling, as when the entire way of life of Bownan’s wife’s family is captured in a way that others might spend 500 pages trying to evoke.

Salter’s novel is digressive in the best sense of the word — each moment of branching off from Bowman’s experiences reinforces the ordinariness and fecundity of existence, and keeps the reader constantly looking for the thread that will tie all these reflections and incidents together. But of course it’s simply the language itself that’s the thread, just as the succession of days and nights in anyone’s life is the thread itself; any arc or theme is simply something we assign to that succession.

And, indeed, there are simply purely poetic sentences that subtly dazzle like indoor fireworks: “Love, that furnace into which everything drops.” But Salter balances them at every turn with the prosaic, with the constant headlong rush of things that simply happen, one after the other. By the time it becomes clear, even to the Reader Just for Story, that Salter’s plot is utterly wayward, the book has cast its spell.

Not every reader will want to watch — already, a bit of a backlash against the 87-year-old author has been seen in some quarters, based on the perceived sexism of Salter’s voice, or the retrograde nature of his literary mode. Salter aspires to a rather masculine Hemingway/Faulkner idea of literariness which is indeed off-putting at times. But the voice feels right and appropriate for the distant decades his characters inhabit. In what is likely his last novel, Salter makes a convincing if not airtight case that those days and nights of work, ambition, love, sex, class, betrayal, confusion and sorrow are, at least in his elegant yet propulsive prose, all that is.

ALL THAT IS James Salter, Alfred A. Knopf, 290 pages