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
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.