Tuesday, April 2, 2013

James Salter's All That Is: A Dose of Elegant

Until a month ago, I'd never read James Salter — which, now, after reading two of his novels, including his first novel in 34 years, All That Is, which is out today (April 2nd), seems like a cryin' shame. Salter is often mentioned in the breath just after American masters like Philip Roth, John Updike, and Norman Mailer — and after reading him, much like Rebecca wrote in a Book Riot post we did today, I don't understand why he doesn't get his due, either.

What All That Is is is wonderful! (Using the word "is" three times in a row? Check. I can die now.) It's a celebration of being alive — which sounds cliché, until you see how Salter manages to capture such a range of human experience in a tiny, 300-page novel. Life is a continuous cycle of love and loss, everyone deals with these differently, and truly, everyone is unique.

Salter's novel is told mainly through the eyes of Philip Bowman, a World War II veteran who spends the mid-20th century as a book editor in New York City. We follow Bowman through a marriage and several other affairs of the heart — each meaningful to him in a different way. The plot of the novel really picks up steam in the second half, when Salter really begins to plumb the depths of Bowman's character. We have to decide whether, despite his flaws, we like him. It's turns out to be quite the tricky decision.

Salter also gives us mini-"profiles" of minor characters throughout the novel — again just to illustrate how quirky we all are. And there a several sort of set pieces that lay groundwork thematically for later events.  Normally, these would feel like unnecessary digressions, but Salter writes so beautifully, so elegantly, you're willing to follow him anywhere. And what's more, Salter doesn't skimp on the sex scene — and his sex scenes are about what might happen if Maya Angelou collaborated with Philip Roth: poetic, but a little crass, too.

If you've never read Salter, and you love good books, you have to try him. I am an immediate convert. (The other novel of his I read was A Sport And A Pastime — which, evidently, is the novel he's most known for.) Salter, who is 87, has only published five other novels (but tons of short stories, poetry, essay, and memoir), so I'm experiencing that particular sadness of "discovering" a writer on what is most likely his last novel. But that's okay. All That Is is so good, I'm happy enough that it was late, and not never.


  1. I'm about half way through All That Is right now and am going through many of the same emotions connected to just now discovering Salter. Who can I blame for letting him slip through the cracks of my reading history? I just read an amazing passage from Light Years and definitely need to pick that one up, too.

    1. I feel the same way - I'd kind of been aware of Salter, but not felt the same urgency to read him as some of the other "old or dead white guys" of his generation. Gonna try Light Years soon, too. Thanks for the comment on the BR post, too!

  2. Yes I'd like to try a Salter book after all these years

  3. Maybe the hype of the previous reviews raised my expectations too much. Maybe audiobooks can't do justice to the written word. Or maybe this is just colorful writing, but a pointless story about characters whom I wouldn't care about in real life. The author renders life a meaningless series of random events. Is that really all that is?

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.