All That Is by James Salter

All That IsAmbitious in its scope, All That Is tells the story of Philip Bowman from his youth to middle age taking in a few key moments of the twentieth century along the way. Using an impressionistic approach, Salter takes us on a tour of privileged post-war white East Coast America.

This is done by showing us formative moments in his protagonist’s life, as well sketching out a brief back story for pretty much every character we encounter in the story. No mean feat in a story which comes in at under four hundred pages. This is a condensed, vacuum packed novel.

A brief detour to Virginia thrown in for good measure, mainly so we can gawp at the awful moneyed hicks who, according to Salter, live there. Why their East Coast equivalents are any better is never really detailed. Perhaps it’s because they work in publishing.

The novel opens off the coast of Japan around Okinawa aboard an American battle ship. Here we are introduced to Bowman as he partakes in the final stages of Japan’s defeat at the hands of the Americans. We then follow his post-war life as he pursues a career in publishing and, after an unsuccessful marriage, endless affairs.

It is here that the rot, or should I say Roth, sets in. In common with Roth, Salter seems to be of the opinion that watching privileged white men, who work in or around publishing and who, like Ron Burgundy, have “many leather-bound books”, and an apartment which “smells of rich mahogany”, follow their boners is an inherently fascinating activity.

That’s not to say that a certain amusement can’t be derived from such scenarios, but a full novel? To compound the matter, Salter seems unaware of the absurdity of such characters. Because of this, he misses the comic possibilities inherent in these ridiculous vain creatures who accord their sterile, empty orgasms a cultural significance.

This kind of po-faced faux macho American writing just doesn’t do it for me. One almost gets the feeling that the authors are emasculated by their profession and feel the need to compensate for this.

The female characters function as little more than neurotic receptacles for these literary studs. They range from mouthy alcoholics to good time girls with daddy issues. Some of the descriptions of the these characters makes one embarrassed for the author. Take the following sentence for example: “She was lively and wanted to talk, like a wind-up doll, a little doll that also did sex.” Also every female character in the novel is secretly in love with James Salt… ahem, I mean Philip Bowman.

Salter’s descriptions of Europe are equally embarrassing, particularly the passages set in Spain, which have the intoxicated starry-eyed quality of a teenage backpackers prose. Everything is exotic, intense and “authentic”. Inevitably Lorca is mentioned, and Spanish Gypsies play guitar and sing laments. Oh dear. Not that I have anything against Lorca or Spanish Gypsies but the obviousness chafes.

The ghost of Hemingway also hovers around these passages and Salter suffers from the comparison. One could excuse such juvenile depictions of Europe were they merely the characters point of view but I could find no evidence in the text which suggests this to be the case.

All That Is seems to be a swan song for the 87-year-old Salters presumably lost virility. It is an infuriating read because one clearly see’s that Salter can write. Certain passages shine with clarity and precision, alas they get lost among the tedious machismo. All That Is, unfortunately isn’t all that.

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10 thoughts on “All That Is by James Salter

  1. Was this your first by James Salter or have you read any of his others? While I liked parts of this one (the opening section for instance), I found it somewhat uneven; I don’t think it’s his best novel. He can write beautifully and in Light Years his prose shimmers..

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    • It was my first,something about the novel really annoyed me! I still can’t pin it down exactly.but I am willing to give him another chance because there were moments I enjoyed. I’ll take a look at the ones you suggested and see if I owe him a reassessment! Thanks for the suggestions and taking the time to comment.

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      • Very welcome, your review is very interesting. I’ve read a couple of his other novels. In The Hunters he draws on his time as a fighter pilot and it’s very reminiscent of that opening section in All That Is. Light Years is quite different, a more emotionally- driven novel, a portrait of a marriage (and I loved his writing style in this one).

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      • Do you feel reading his other work has given you a context for understanding or a better idea of what he was trying to achieve with All That Is? I kept feeling like I was missing or not quite getting something as I read it.

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      • To a certain extent, yes. Having read a couple of his earlier ones, I could see the connections between All That Is and his other work, although I’m still not entirely sure what he was trying to achieve in All That Is (other than capturing a certain period and culture/attitude).

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  2. I pressed ‘post’ too quickly there (the hazards of commenting via the WP app!)…I think my reaction to his latest novel would have been similar to yours had I not read a couple of his earlier ones. Also, even though it’s not autobiographical, I wonder to what extent he drew on his own experience or the lives of his contemporaries and contacts when writing this one?

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  3. The Hunters is great, though my reading of it predates my blog. I did write up his A Sport and a Pastime, which I liked.

    This though, your review chimes with others I’ve read, though I think you put the criticisms better. Your points about the assumed importance of wealthy literary penises ring very true, and I have a deep aversion to novels by old men which appear to be essentially lengthy fantasies (it happens a lot in SF oddly enough, or certainly used to, no more likable there though).

    “po-faced faux macho American writing” – spot on, I know exactly what you mean. There’s great writing coming out of America, of course, but it’s often not the stuff that gets most lauded which I think too often falls into exactly this trap (though to be fair plenty of US critics were none too kind to this one).

    Do you find it difficult writing negative reviews? I do them myself when it’s appropriate, but I never enjoy it. For what it’s worth I thought this was a particularly well argued one.

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    • Thanks Max, you are very generous! I hate writing bad reviews, I always feel guilty because I realise the amount of time and effort that must have gone into writing any book only to have some little punk blogger come along and turn their nose up at it, and perhaps patronisingly, I felt extra bad about this one because Jamed Salter is so old! Anyway I’m going to make it up to him by checking out the titles you and Jacqui mentioned.

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