October 7, 2013

Book Review: "All That Is" by James Salter

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All That Is
By James Salter
Knopf
Reviewed by Travis Fortney

"All night in darkness the water sped past."

How you react to that sentence--this novel's first--will likely determine how you react to James Salter's All That Is. The sentence is chiseled to its essential core--it tells us that we are on a boat, that the boat is traveling through the night--and yet the words manage to retain a healthy amount of a certain kind of masculine poetry. If we read a little further, we find out that the boat in question is a Navy warship, and that it is carrying our protagonist Phillip Bowman into battle. We find out that it's the end of the World War II. Of the sinking of a great Japanese warship, Salter writes: "It was not a battle, it was a ritual, the death of a huge beast brought about by repeated blows. [...] Near the end of the second hour, listing almost eighty degrees, with hundreds dead and more wounded, blind and ruined, the gigantic ship began to sink."

The beginning of All That Is is the end of the war, so it makes sense that the few pages describing battle scenes are the most descriptive and beautiful in the novel. This is the story of a postwar life, a life lived in war's ever-widening shadow. By chapter two we've followed Phillip to New York, where he gets a job as a book editor. We follow him through a failed early marriage and several love affairs. There is a healthy amount of the sex writing Salter is known for. We get sex from both the male and female point of view, written with a kind of ultra-compressed, lyrical minimalism. "She reached down and slipped off her shoes," Salter writes. The sentence contains volumes. The author seems to have a fascination with zooming in on his characters at moments when their guard is down. Salter also makes liberal use of another technique, which, for lack of better phrasing, I'll call "opening a portal" into his characters' lives. For just a few sentences, or a paragraph, or sometimes an entire chapter, he'll let us see what the world looks like through the eyes of a certain character. Salter's mission is to express the life's wideness, and to express Bowman's own wonder at it. Salter's purpose isn't so much to allow Bowman to come to any conclusions about what he has seen as it is to chronicle his experience.

All That Is is an exercise in the type of compression that Hemingway specialized in--what Hemingway himself called "poetry written into prose"--taken to an extreme that Hemingway might have reached had he lived and written effectively for another thirty or so years. I don't mean that All That Is is better than Hemingway's best work, but I do believe that Salter takes it to a level that Hemingway wasn't able to reach in his lifetime. Part of the accomplishment of this novel has to be Salter's expansive focus. Besides Bowman, we get the "portals" into the lives of twenty or so other characters. The narrative spans fifty years.

On the surface, Bowman's life ends up looking a bit sad--he never has children, never finds true love, and never becomes as rich or successful as some of his contemporaries. Bowman's life also doesn't provide much of a plot or plot arc. He doesn't so much begin as find himself involved in a war. In the middle of the novel, directly after the war, Bowman is characterized mostly by desire. He strongly desires conventional comforts like love, marriage, a career. But desire fades. Toward the end of the novel, Bowman is having dinner with his boss. Salter writes that, "Their dog, a black Scottie, didn't even bother to sniff him." Ouch. Bowman doesn't come to an end so much as lose his spirit.

The closest thing to an arc in All That Is is provided by Ezra Pound. (Incidentally, Pound also made an appearance in Salter's last book of fiction, 2005's Last Night. The title of the story "My Lord You" in that collection is taken from Ezra Pound's translation of the Chinese poem "The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter"--this probably doesn't suggest Pound fandom on Salter's part so much as it suggests that he was engaged in the writing of All That Is a decade or so ago when he was working on the story.) Early on in the novel Bowman tells his wife Vivian he "was reading about Ezra Pound in St. Elizabeth's." Vivian asks what Pound was there for, and he tells her, "probably because they didn't know what else to do with him." He describes Pound as "a towering poet," then goes on to explain, "he made some broadcasts for the fascists in Italy. [...] He had obsessions about the evils of bank interest, Jews, the provincialism of America, and he talked about them in his broadcasts. He was at dinner in Rome one night and heard the news that the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor, and he said, my God, I'm a ruined man." Vivian says that Pound doesn't sound crazy, and Bowman agrees. Bowman's refusal to accept what he views as the flawed prevailing wisdom about Pound--that he lost his mind and turned to spewing mindless ugliness--is what youth and vitality looks like in this novel, at least when youth and vitality isn't finding expression by more carnal means.

Toward the end of the book, Pound makes another appearance. At least a decade has passed, and Bowman's marriage to Vivian has long since ended. Bowman is out to dinner with his boss, and the publisher's wife Diana is discussing the Bollingen Prize, which was awarded to Pound for the Pisan Cantos in its inaugural year of 1948. "They did it as soon as they could," Diana says. "You don't honor someone who's thrown sewage on top of you and stirred up ignorance and hatred." Bowman lets the comment pass. It's not that his opinion about Pound has changed in the intervening years, so much as that he no longer holds passionate opinions at all. It's no coincidence that in the chapter immediately following, Bowman makes a desperate (and apparently successful) attempt to reassert his manhood.

All in all, this is a beautiful, difficult, and sometimes puzzling novel. Though Salter takes many cues from Hemingway, I'm not sure Hemingway himself would have found this intense focus on the everyday to be worthwhile.

Out of 10: 9.5

Read even more about All That Is: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Travis Fortney at 9:15 AM, October 7, 2013. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews | Travis Fortney |