"All That Is" by James Salter, Vintage Books, $15.95 (paperback)
Partway through James Salter's "All That Is" — recently out in paperback — Philip Bowman, who has spent his entire career as an editor at a New York publishing house, reflects on the state of his industry: "The power of the novel in the nation’s culture had weakened. It had happened gradually. It was something everyone recognized and ignored."
Perhaps Bowman's sentiment shares something of his creator's time away from the novel. In the decades since 1979's "Solo Faces," Salter has written a highly regarded memoir, essays, short stories and poetry but has stayed away from the big story. "All That Is" manages to be a beguiling return to the form.
It may be impossible to describe adequately why this book exerts such a strong influence. Bowman, with whom we spend most of the pages, is not particular charming himself — although we peek into the lives of his fascinating diaspora from his fellow editors to his lovers to his friends, all living in the years after World War II. Beyond Bowman's linked affairs, there is no real discernible plot, but a series of compressed occurrences, as we map out, breezily, the entire trajectories of characters' (often dipsomaniacal) arcs. Bowman's philandering eventually receives a karmic comeuppance, and his cruel retaliation marks the arguable climax.
Although the word "hypnotic" seems often overused in book reviews, the writing in "All That Is" demands the description. From the astonishing opening on the sea, each sentence is charming, and paragraphs cast spells. For good reason has Richard Ford described Salter as the best American sentence-writer, and for good cause has Teju Cole recently noted he "cherish(ed)" every sentence Salter wrote. Salter captures the quotidian as few can.
Thus this may not be a great novel for all readers, but it probably is a great novel for all writers. Those who have agonized over sentences will enjoy how this book overflows with bewildering beauty:"There was a time, usually late in August, when summer struck the trees with dazzling power and they were rich with leaves but then became, suddenly one day, strangely still, as if in expectation and at that moment aware." Or how it extols the wisdom of its 87-year-old author: "Age doesn’t arrive slowly, it comes in a rush … You are the same and still the same, and suddenly one morning two distinct lines, ineradicable, have appeared at the corners of your mouth." Or how it features something gnomic on each page: "When you love you see a future according to your dreams."
"All That Is" covers the dreams and nightmares of love, which is described in the book as "the furnace into which everything is dropped." If so, every flame and crackle that Salter manages here could keep one staring into the fire for a long time. Even if weakened, there is definitely some power left in the novel — and even if this example is imperfect.