One-Minute Book Reviews

May 27, 2013

James Salter’s Novel ‘All That Is’ — A Book Editor in Love and War

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:07 pm
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A New York book editor tries to make sense of the plot of his life

All That Is: A Novel. By James Salter Knopf, 304 pp., $26.95.

By Janice Harayda

All the world’s a stage, and set decoration matters: This theme has surfaced again and again in the fiction of James Salter. It returns with a vengeance in this novel about the sexual misadventures of an editor at a high-toned New York publishing firm in the four decades that follow World War II.

As a young naval officer, Philip Bowman survives a kamikaze attack on his ship in the run-up to Okinawa. Any psychic wounds he suffered don’t keep him from subsequently gliding through Harvard and into an affair with Vivian Amussen, whose rich father owns a 400-acre horse farm in Virginia. Bowman hears no alarm bells when, on visiting the Amussen estate for the first time, he notices an indifference to the comfort of others: Behind a couch in the living room lie dried dog turds “as in 17th-century palaces.” On the contrary, the rising editor seems drawn to Vivian in part because the backdrop for her life differs so markedly from that of his upbringing in New Jersey. He has little enough self-awareness that when their brief marriage ends, he allows appearances to lead him into a series of other love affairs that end in disappointment, if not betrayal.

Salter suggests that Bowman stumbles because his father abandoned the family two years after his birth: He “never had a strong masculine figure in his own life to teach him how to be a man.” His protagonist is a watered-down male counterpart to one of those Henry James or Edith Wharton heroines whose assets don’t offset the lack of a mother to stage-manage her courtships. But Bowman doesn’t develop as a character as Catherine Sloper and Lily Bart do. He pays for his misjudgments not with the loss of hope or life but with the loss of a piece of set decoration for his bed-hopping — a second home in the Hamptons that he owned for a year before an ex-lover wrested from him with fancy legal footwork. He avenges the incident with a shocking act of cruelty to his former paramour’s daughter but assumes no moral responsibility for his caddish behavior and faces no serious consequences for it.

With all of this, Salter is trying to have it both ways — to cast Bowman as decent man even as he acts loutishly – and the pretty scenery can’t mask the inconsistency. Even the pristine writing style that has won him so much praise has grown overripe with comma splices and other tics, such as when he writes of Vivian’s horse-country town: “There was no place to stay, you had to live there.” Anyone hoping to understand the acclaim for Salter’s work would do better to pick up his fine short story collection Dusk, which more effectively shows how, as one of its characters says, a romance resembles a play: It unfolds scene by scene as “the reality of another person changes.”

Best line: “ ‘You know, you haven’t changed a bit. Except for your appearance,’ he said.” A rare flash of humor in All That Is, although Salter may not have intended it that way.

Worst line: “It was a departure of foreboding, like the eerie silence that precedes a coming storm.” “Eerie silence” is a cliché, and “coming” is redundant.

Published: April 2013

Read an excerpt from All That Is. You may also want to read “James Salter’s 10 Worst Sentences.”

Jan is an award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 25, 2013

James Salter’s 10 Worst Sentences — From ‘All That Is’ and ‘Dusk’

Filed under: Novels,Quotes of the Day,Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:40 pm
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James Salter’s novel All That Is came out last month, and many articles about it have quoted Richard Ford’s comment that Salter “writes American sentences better than anyone writing today.” Does he deserve that praise? You be the judge.

Here are 10 sentences from All That Is and from Salter’s PEN/Faulkner Award–winning Dusk and Other Stories:

From All That Is
“It was a departure of foreboding, like the eerie silence that precedes a coming storm.”
“Eerie silence” is a cliché, and “coming” in that sentence is redundant.

“It’s too peaceful.” [A sailor just before a kamikaze strike on his ship]
Cavalrymen say this before the Apaches attack in cowboy movies.

“He had no system for gambling, he bet on instinct, some men seem to have a gift for it.” 
Meet the king of the comma splices.

“Her buttocks were glorious, it was like being in a bakery …”
No comment.

“Her husband-to-be was smiling as she came towards him, Sophie was smiling, nearly everyone was.”

Apart from the comma splices: What’s with the British spelling of “towards,” which appears 36 times in this novel about an American man? It’s “toward” in American English. The book also uses “backwards” instead of the American “backward.”

From Dusk and Other Stories
“Forty-six. … She would never be any younger.”
In other words, she’s just like the rest of us who will never be any younger.

“Of course, she was nervous. She was thirty.”
See a theme developing?

“He was wildly generous, he seemed to care nothing for money, it was crumpled in his pockets like waste paper, when he paid for things it would fall to the floor.”
More comma splices.

“She was a woman who had read books, played golf, gone to weddings, whose legs were good, who had weathered storms, a fine woman whom no one now wanted.”
When he says “no one now wanted,” he means, “no man now wanted.”

“Her most useful friend was a hysterical woman named Mirella Ricci, who had a large apartment and aristocratic longings, also the fears and illnesses of women who live alone.”
Women have their uses, even if they’re “hysterical? And what are those unspecified “fears and illnesses of women who live alone”? They can’t be worse than the “fears and illnesses” of men who live alone, who die younger and are less healthy than their female peers.

You can follow can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar on this page.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 18, 2008

Where Have All the Quotation Marks in Novels Gone? (Quote of the Day / Lionel Shriver)

Have you noticed something missing from the novels you’ve read lately? Such as all the quotation marks? The novelist Lionel Shriver recently had a provocative essay in the Wall Street Journal on the perils of a white-hot literary fad popularized by Cormac McCarthy: dropping quotations marks from lines of dialogue. Shriver writes:

“Some rogue must have issued a memo, ‘Psst! Cool writers don’t use quotes in dialogue anymore’ to authors as disparate as Junot Díaz, James Frey, Evan S. Connell, J. M. Coetzee, Ward Just, Kent Haruf, Nadine Gordimer, José Saramago, Dale Peck, James Salter, Louis Begley and William Vollman. To the degree that this device contributes to the broader popular perception that ‘literature’ is pretentious, faddish, vague, eventless, effortful, and suffocatingly interior, quotation marks may not be quite as tiny as they appear on the page.

“By putting the onus on the reader to determine which lines are spoken and which not, the quoteless fad feeds the widespread conviction that popular fiction is fun while literature is arduous. Surely what should distinguish literature isn’t that it’s hard but that it’s good.”

Some writers argue that that including quotation marks is intrusive that and omitting them reduces clutter in fiction. But if you aggressively exclude the marks, can’t that be intrusive in its own way? Shriver shows that it can by quoting passages by well-known novelists in which missing quotations result in confusing, misleading or labored prose. Read her essay here (and send a link to this one to any creative writing teachers or students you know): online.wsj.com/article/SB122489468502968839.html?mod=googlenews_wsj.

Apart from the writers on Shriver’s list, others who have omitted quotation marks include Henry Shukman in his well-received 2008 novel, The Lost City. What books have you read that use the device? How well did it work? I’d love to know if you’ve found examples in any of finalists for the 2008 National Book Awards www.nationalbook.org, the winners of which will be announced tomorrow night.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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