All That Is by James Salter. Knopf. $26.95, 304pp.
In Henry James’s The Ambassadors, the main character, a fifty-something never-married American man, gives out the following advice to a young adult: “Live. Live all you can.” The title of James Salter’s sixth novel, All That Is, serves as a clarion call for its subject: as a title and phrase it comprises what we have in life before its end. It might also mean what survives, but in Salter’s bejeweled prose, death comes to signify what is most important, because only then will life’s legacy be applied. Has one lived a full life? What does someone take with them? The explicit (and expected) answer near the end of the book—we take with us the moments when we were happy—contrasts with the parameters of being on earth. Salter shows the human race for the anachronistic and unholy behaviors it forges to obtain that simpering, pampered word that takes so much but yields so little, since many admit to not even knowing when they were happy.
The themes typical of Salter’s most cherished work are present: a serviceman and life after WWII, rich families, lust, women and men’s appetites, success in life, fine food, fine wine, the high life, sex, and wisdom. The book concerns Philip Bowman, a member of the navy who moves to Manhattan and becomes a book editor after the war. He is the ostensible protagonist, but Salter looks at a long line of characters branching out from Philip’s early marriage to a young, well-to-do Virginian, Vivian. They include her divorced parents, the mother a drunk and the father a debauched rich man who seduces a relative’s teenage daughter; Philip’s friends; and a small parade of lovers after he is divorced, including extended portraits of one lover’s husband and one’s daughter. Salter’s characterization is keyed to a bygone era where phrenology, not digital voyeurism, reigned. In his world, people’s gestures signify their behavior, as when Bowman first meets Christine, a girlfriend in his later years who eventually cheats him in many ways: “Her other hand was raised and half-closed as if drying her nails.”
Salter has been described as a master of sentences, but what might be more accurate is his mastery of word choice and metaphor. His sentences aren’t the sinuous architectural behemoths of James or William H. Gass. Many are terse, quick jabs: “The kiss was light and ardent,” or, describing a writer’s opulent house, “It was like a small family hotel, a hotel in the west.” Early on, Salter describes Beatrice, Philip’s mother, and her thoughts on the husband who left when their son was two: “She had less curiosity about the two wives that followed, they represented only something pitiable.” And when Bowman upbraids his wife about not cleaning their apartment, Salter writes, “She disdained to answer.”
The right word is the feather that balances the scales in writing. Pitiable and disdained carry nutrition one doesn’t get from serviceable, but unremarkable words. Pushed further, it is the accretion of sentences in Salter that creates an arresting image and an inspiring impression of the life inside us.
All That Is studies a good number of men’s appetites for women, but none as succinctly as the portrait of a Swedish publisher called Berggren. Related to his publishing house, Philip meets the Swede overseas. In less than three pages Salter reveals the splendor and the squalor in the rich man’s life—how he’d brought Proust and Gidé into the house, how he’d been married three times, and how women were “the chief reason for living or they represented it.” But what does this lead to? How does he get through life with such a philosophy?
A certain unwanted coldness at his center kept him from real happiness, and though he married beautiful women, let us say possessed them, it was never complete and yet to live without them was unthinkable. The great hunger of the past was for food, there was never enough food and the majority of people were undernourished or starving, but the new hunger was for sex, there was the same specter of famine without it.
It is sad to think this stark epitaph might be applied to a good number of the species, and the fact of Berggren’s suicide after breaking up with his third wife should only be read as warning, though some might see the valediction of a certain masculinity in living to possess. This and other men, counterpoints to Philip essential to his development, are mirrors, and though he might not understand their logic, his striving behavior leads to a deleterious lapse in his own judgment concerning the daughter of Christine, who bilks him out of a house he’d bought. This is the decisive action in the novel and the quite shocking turn of events, a serious disregard of morals, threatens to torch any compassion the reader has for the main character in his quest for flesh.
Perhaps the most stunning line comes early, as Philip’s mother muses on Vivian, the woman he plans to and will marry. At first she is excited at the prospect of a future life for her son: “Like all mothers though, Beatrice hoped for a girl like herself, whose life could almost perfectly be combined with her own.” Then a line of thinking rarely voiced and almost alien in our politically correct society appears. When told her son wants Vivian, Beatrice protests against her, saying they don’t have much in common, but Philip resists this.
What Beatrice did not say, but what she deeply felt was that Vivian had no soul, but to say it would be unforgivable. She merely sat silent.
This contention may be misread as uppity, but rather it goes over as a particulate of ancient wisdom. It’s an assessment fitting of Salter’s universe. All throughout his oeuvre people constantly measure each other, with his characters emptying their hearts into their judgments, even if their desires are bilious, as often those most powerful and financially solvent get enmeshed with love in odd metrical fits.
All That Is stands as a spectacular feast. It is Light Years without the children, but also without Nedra, the wife and mother, whose early self-absorption harnesses a frankness that eventually gives way to wisdom just before her death. Nedra and Philip are furthermore linked because they aspire to artistry, but aren’t artists. Instead they must take what they can from their lot—namely beauty in the form of another’s body. And from such physical prowess comes their power in life. At a certain age Nedra renounces sex, while Philip goes a little longer living off the memories of his lavish affairs. Ultimately he comes to see beyond himself, encountering what Henry James once called “the country of the blue,” a metaphor for a place which might be the home of the soul.
James had a different answer to the question, What is life’s worth?, but the endeavor to answer is the territory of both artists. “What do we live for?” has to be the question funding the fiction we return to. As Philip’a final thoughts on isolated moments of his existence add up to “the life beyond reckoning, the life that had been opened to him and that he owned,” we are left closing the book and pointing a finger at ourselves. Are we satisfied with our lives? Sometimes only after experiencing James Salter and the many great inquisitors of literature, does the real work begin.
Greg Gerke’s fiction and non-fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, The Kenyon Review Online, Denver Quarterly, LIT, Film Comment, and others. He lives in Brooklyn. His website is GregGerke.com
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- Said and Done by James Morrison Recently trapped at the beach, thinking about the concept of "summer reading"—a sort of intentional intellectual ghetto—flipping through some magazine (People, I think), I ran across a line slagging story collections. The article began with a general nod to the universal unpleasantness of reading them: too much stopping and starting,...
- The Master of the Not Quite: The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief by James Wood Wood can be harsh, yes, but he is seldom unfair. Wyatt Mason was wrong to accuse him of having suggested, by dint of a string of negative reviews, that no good contemporary literature exists. (He has written favorably of McEwan, Bolaño, Robinson, Ozick, Kirsch, Sebald, Roth, Saramago, Swift, Carey.) He...
- The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings by James Baldwin Edited and introduced by novelist Randall Kenan and published in August, 2010, The Cross of Redemption arranges nearly 60 previously uncollected essays, speeches, reviews, and profiles by James Baldwin, one of the 20th century's most prolific and politically engaged black writers. For readers unfamiliar with Baldwin's writing, these pieces will...
- The One That Got Away: Why James Wood is Wrong About Underworld (And Why Anyone Should Care) Garth Risk Hallberg sorts out literary feuds, dissects James Wood's essay against Don DeLillo's 832-page opus Underworld, and argues that this book actually evolves the novel forward....
- “The Thoughts of Other People”: James Wood and the Realism of “Mind” Certainly there is room for disagreement about what is considered the "proper" purpose of literature. Some readers (and some critics) want "content" from the fiction or poetry they read, indeed want works of literature to "say something" about human experience depicted either through the behavior of individual characters or through...
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Greg Gerke