"From his experiences as a young naval officer in battles off Okinawa, Philip Bowman returns to America and finds a position as a book editor. It is a time when publishing is still largely a private affair--a scattered family of small houses here and in Europe--a time of gatherings in fabled apartments and conversations that continue long into the night. In this world of dinners, deals, and literary careers, Bowman finds that he fits in perfectly. But despite his success, what eludes him is love"--Dust jacket flap.
With an end as the beginning - that of the world war - Philip Bowman has returned to New York after serving in the Pacific campaign as a young Navy officer. He enters the world of book publishing as an editor, and we start to follow his life. We meet his colleagues, his small but supportive family - only child, father left when he was a boy - and soon enough his loves. Then the relationships -
"It was love - the furnace into which everything was dropped."
- and the friendships, dinner parties and business trips - London, Paris, and Frankfurt. Virginia WASPs and English greyhound trainers; southern gentlemen, publishers' wives and European playboys - this is a life, no - a collection of lives. East coast America, it's conurbations and backwaters alike is another character in the narrative - artfully drawn and vital.
As we witness the ebb and flow of Bowman's life, as well as that of Neil Eddins - his erstwhile colleague and friend - we come to know their innermost thoughts and desires, fears and regrets. Perhaps appropriately, given Bowman's and Eddins' vocations, but the cultural references abound as we steam through the fifties and sixties. Before we know it the 'post-hippie' era is upon us and our main protagonists' lives have taken several twists and turns, as you'd expect. Nevertheless, this book still manages to shock at turns most unexpected and heartbreaking. Bowman is not a perfect man, and at times his actions gall. But through it all you can see the humanity. Perhaps it's heavily autobiographical, I wouldn't quite know, but it certainly is a life of a character I shall not forget.
"You have to have loyalty to things. If you don't have loyalty you're alone on earth."
Almost as a bookend to our start, a chance encounter one evening sends the reader tumbling back, back through Bowman's lifetime in an instant and perhaps we realise together that that's 'all there is'? But that it is enough.
This is a beautiful read, written with passion and tenderness, and a lightness of touch that is to be treasured. It made me think about things and ponder the decisions we make in life, and the people we meet, and some that we leave behind. I'm so glad I've found James Salter and have his other books ahead of me to read. Five stars.
PS: My library audiobook is narrated by Joe Barrett. His work is superb - a real joy to listen to his warm and expressive tones. I'd happily listen to him read anything North American.
I found this book to be surprisingly unengaging. In particular, there was very little about the main character that resonated with me emotionally; I simply did not come to care enough about Bowman as a person to feel joy over his successes or angst and anger when he was betrayed (in fact, some of his actions in the story make it difficult for the reader to even like him). The reason for this, I think, is the extremely cursory way in which Salter developed his characters. We are told, for instance, that Bowman’s experiences during the war were the most significant moments of his life, but there is very little evidence of that after the first few chapters. Also, Bowman is portrayed as a successful editor but, beyond traveling the world to attend various publishing soirees, we never see him working with any authors or manuscripts in a meaningful way.
By all accounts, with All That Is, Salter is reaching the end of a long and celebrated literary career. I typically try not to learn too much about a new novel before I begin reading it, but in this case avoiding advance notice was virtually impossible as the usual outlets I frequent (e.g., LibraryThing, Amazon.com, The Millions, NPR) all produced glowing accolades to either the author or the book around the time it was released. Clearly, those reverential and heartfelt sentiments were delivered by people well acquainted with the author’s previous work.
However, given that this was my first exposure to Salter’s fiction, reading or hearing those commentaries—which were really more tribute than critical review—created a considerable amount of cognitive dissonance when I started on the novel for myself. Indeed, I went into the experience with the impression that I would be reading the work of a next-generation Hemingway but, sadly, what I found fell considerably short of that nearly impossible standard on several levels. So, while in no way a regrettable experience, this is not a book that I could recommend without a great deal of hesitation.
With such an intriguing introduction, how could I not investigate farther? I started with Salter’s 1988 PEN/Faulkner Award-winning collection, Dusk: And Other Stories. I was immediately captivated and added several more of his books to my shelves. The PEN/Faulkner Award is America’s most prestigious literary prize. As numerous critics have said, Salter is a “writer’s writer.” Noted critic, James Walcott dubbed him our “most underrated writer. I could not agree more.
The Times reported Salter was born in New York City and attended the Horace Mann School in Riverdale. His father had graduated first in his class at West Point in 1918, and Salter became a cadet. Upon graduation, he joined the Army Air Corps. He served in Korea, where he shot down one MIG and damaged another. His experiences as a fighter pilot became the inspiration for one of his early stories, “A Single Daring Act.” After achieving the rank of major, he abruptly resigned to devote his full efforts to writing. In 1956, he had his first novel published, The Hunter. He also spent some time as a screenwriter. His writing credits include the cult film “Downhill Racer.”
His latest work, All That Is, carries this reputation forward. This is his first novel since 1979. Poetic and literary, Salter chronicles the life of Philip Bowman. The novel opens with Midshipman Bowman on a carrier under attack by the Japanese in the days before the invasion of Okinawa. After the war, he returns to America and becomes a book editor.
The novel has an intricate web of characters who come in and out of Bowman’s life. Despite his frightening experiences in the Pacific, Bowman seems obsessed with water and conquering lingering fears. Swimming figures in a number of his relationships. He attracts, beautiful, wealthy women, but he seems unable to hold onto them – they slip through his fingers line a handful of water.
In an epigram in All That Is, James Salter writes, “There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.” A writer’s writer indeed! No more quotes, I want you to experience this outstanding writer entirely on your own. I believe his reputation will endure.
Salter himself, asked the same question, would very likely give a similar answer: the air force and the war. Because although Salter just missed out on WWII, he did fly first generation fighter jets in the Korean conflict and kept on flying, both on active duty and in the reserves, for nearly twenty years. ALL THAT IS, although fiction, more than likely contains some highly autobiographical material. Salter left the service to write full time. Bowman made a career of editing, working for a New York publishing firm.
Born in 1925, Salter has been a writer for over 60 years now. The title of ALL THAT IS, his first novel in thirty years, is a fitting one. Because it is a story with a timeline that encompasses much of the 20th century, from Bowman's time as a naval officer in the closing days of the war, to the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam, and all the way into the new century. There is also a rich tapestry of secondary characters, each with a personal thumbnail history woven into the narrative. They range from Bowman's naval buddies to his professional colleagues - in both America and Europe. But, as in Salter's previous work, the women are paramount. The wives and lovers of both Bowman and his friends. And there is sex, a lot of it, in its many varieties, which will surprise none of Salter's regular readers. Bowman has plenty of success with women, but not with marriage. He also has one notable failure, which initially nearly undoes him. But he gets even, years later, with a kind of revenge that is perhaps less than admirable. But, being the kind of man Bowman is, this episode fits. Salter seems to have an instinct for what happens behind closed doors and a considerable talent for describing it. His style is graphic yet somehow genteel, polished and unsentimental.
A recent profile of the author in The New Yorker (April 15, 2013)was titled, "The Last Book: Why James Salter Isn't Famous." Salter is nearly 88. With that in mind, ALL THAT IS could indeed be his last book. While reading it, I couldn't help but marvel at the sheer scope of the novel, a story which covers several decades, and includes so many fascinating characters, even the ones mentioned only briefly in passing. It seemed almost as if Salter had gathered up this vast gallery of people, of characters he had imagined, people he had observed and bits of conversations he had overheard, and had woven it all together - "all that is" - into this beautiful masterwork.
No one writes like James Salter. His work is unique. And great. The guy's still got it. ALL THAT IS was a pleasure to read, to linger over and to savor. I'm sure I will return to it, as I have to his other books. Very highly recommended.
Salter at 88 does not shy away from sex, and has a way of describing things that I smiled at: a beautiful woman who has “a riveting face that God had stamped with the simple answer to life”; fellatio as “the act of a believer”, lovemaking as “as if it were a violent crime”, arousal as “he was like a boy of eighteen, invincibly hard”, a naked woman on her stomach as “they were not equals, not now”, and finding love so right as “a blessing, a proof of God.”
Characters pop in and out and then a backstory for them is created, seemingly on the fly, and sometimes awkwardly. There is little structure here, and that’s part of Salter’s point – this is life. It may be accurate, but the lack of structure made for just ‘ok’ reading from my perspective, though I’m sure Salter fans will enjoy it.
On breaking up:
“He felt sick with the memory of it. He was sick with all the memories. They had done things together that would make her look back one day and see that he was the one who truly mattered. That was a sentimental idea, the stuff of a woman’s novel. She would never look back. He knew that. He amounted to a few brief pages. Not even. He hated her, but what could he do?”
“He was certain of only one thing, whatever was to come was the same for everyone who had ever lived. He would be going where they all had gone and – it was difficult to believe – all he had known would go with him, the war, Mr. Kindrigen and the butler pouring coffee, London those first days, the lunch with Christine, her gorgeous body like a separate entity, names, houses, the sea, all he had known and things he had never known but were there nevertheless, things of his time, all the years, the great liners with their invincible glamour readying to sail, the band playing as they were backed away, the green water widening, the Matsonia leaving Honolulu, the Bremen departing, the Aquitania, Ile de France, and the small boats streaming, following behind. The first voice he ever knew, his mother’s, was beyond memory, but he could recall the bliss of being close to her as a child. He could remember his first schoolmates, the names of everyone, the classrooms, the teachers, the details of his own room at home – the life beyond reckoning, the life that had been opened to him and that he had owned.”
On transience, and autumn:
“There was a time, usually late in August, when summer struck the trees with dazzling power and they were rich with leaves but then became, suddenly one day, strangely still, as if in expectation and at that moment aware. They knew. Everything knew, the beetles, the frogs, the crows solemnly walking across the lawn. The sun was at its zenith and embraced the world, but it was ending, all that one loved was at risk.”
Lastly, this pair of naughty jokes:
“There was this Hungarian count, and his wife said to him one day that their son was growing up and wasn't it time he learned about the birds and the bees? All right, the count said, so he took him for a walk. They went down to a stream and stood on a bridge looking down at peasant girls washing clothes. The count said, your mother wants me to talk to you about the birds and the bees, what they do. Yes, father, the son said. Well, you see the girls down there? Yes, father. You remember a few days ago when we came here, what we did with them? Yes, father. Well, that's what the birds and the bees do.”
“Once in a waterfront bar in Hamburg a sailor asked her to dance. Karl Maria did not mind but then the sailor had wanted to give her twenty-five marks to go upstairs with him. She said no, and he made it fifty and followed her back to the bar, where he offered her a hundred marks. Karl Maria leaned forward and said, ‘Hor zu. Sie ist meine frau - she’s my wife. I don’t mind, but I think you may be getting close to her price.’”
It began well and I was instantly reminded of the many books I have read through out the years written about WWII and my parents generation.
Yet something about this book left me cold and uncaring about the central character though I really wanted to like him. I felt sympathy for him.
A cast of too many characters that were slightly boring after awhile.
I can't help but think of the protagonist Philip Bowman as Holden Caulfield, a little more grown up, cynical, and naïve. I suppose all of that listlessness and purposelessness was intentional, like Bowman's early wartime experiences drifting around in a boat, but I got tired of having no compass. I "get" existentialism--existence trumps essence--but that doesn't mean I have to like it, and I feel the same way about this novel.
After All That Is turned out to be "Is that all there is?," I think I'll next read a war novel or detective piece; I need some direction that this author was unwilling to provide.
The chapters or episodes aren't presented as snapshots, though they sometimes seem as economical and distanced as a black and white photograph; instead they reel by like scenes in a film. I suspect this wasn't accidental: Salter has Susan Sontag describe film as the great art of the 20th Century, as opposed to writing, which is not only the life's work of Salter, but of his main character, Philip Bowman, a fiction editor.
I think some readers might object to Bowman's slightness. He's not a great man, and not even a good man, but he also isn't an awful man. He is very limited, very superficial and very distanced. He sees women only as sex objects, and in one startling episode he goes further to make one young woman an instrument of revenge. But Bowman's is only one way, and the book also shows others. What's interesting is that Salter doesn't shrink from the faults of Bowman, or other characters, but he doesn't condemn them either. They mostly seem satisfied.
As Bowman enjoys a trip to the Frick, a reader can enjoy this portrait, painted with skill, of a man of certain time and place, and the people he encounters.
Salter makes turning the pages easy while he explores this topic from multiple perspectives.
However, the topic is anything but, and any sweetness the reader finds here will be speculative rather than realized.
It's there but it's bittersweet and hard won.
I began listening to the book with my husband, but he eventually abandoned me. After awhile, listening was like a punishment, with my mind constantly reeling with the thought, oh no, not another hot sex scene! I struggled to find the purpose of the book, the message the author was trying to impart. I thought it was going to be about a young officer’s return to civilian life and the struggles he would haves to face to readjust and rejoin his family and friends. Instead, I found a story about a maladjusted misogynist, who finds success in the working world as a book editor, but absolutely none in the world of romance. For Philip Bowman, love is simply contained in the physical act of sex, and he appears to think that women exist merely for that purpose.
When we meet Philip Bowman, in 1944, he is a junior officer on board a submarine, headed for Okinawa. Shortly thereafter, he returns to Summit, New Jersey, to pick up his life. He searches for and finds a job in publishing, and we travel with him as he spends the rest of his life working in that business as a book editor for a publishing house that handles literary books like Faulkner’s “Forever Amber”. He meets a woman named Vivian, from a rather charmed, wealthy background, and begins to experience life to the fullest. This however is short lived, and he goes from one unsuccessful relationship to another, always seeming to seek only sexual gratification from his relationships.
One problem from the start is that the characters are thrown at the reader full speed, often confusing the narrative. Apparently the author is trying to introduce the reader to the atmosphere that existed for Bowman on his return and to do that, he thrusts them into a cauldron filled with people and places that are sometimes hard to separate, at first.
The cast of characters seems to be short on moral behavior. The women are portrayed as loose and careless in their lives, with both their sex and their ambition. This is a time, however, when women had far fewer opportunities than have today. The book is burdened with a cast of less than ethical characters. Infidelity seems to be the order of the day. Unscrupulous behavior seems to be acceptable. They seem to be flying by the seats of their pants, for the most part, doing whatever they want to, without a filter. Businesses are motivated by profit alone, marriages end with abandon, respect for the rights of others is ignored. Crass remarks are made about people of color, alternate lifestyles and Jews. The book is also marked by the use of unnecessarily crude language and expressions.
Not a fan of gratuitous sex, I found the book peppered with too many sex scenes that seemed completely irrelevant and served only to point out the shallowness of Bowman’s treatment of and feelings toward women. Chauvinism doesn’t seem like an adequate enough word to describe his behavior. There were simply too many romantic interludes which only served to show that Bowman seemed only to concern himself with his own needs and cared little, long term, for others. I think he deserved the constant rejection he experienced. I found the story morbid, depressing and lacking in any positive message. It is simply about a man who has no respect for anyone, let alone women, and who is obsessed or consumed by his need for sex, never learning to temper his impulses even into his fifties. He does not seem to grow and become a better person from his experiences. Both Bowman and the company he worked for seemed to have higher standards for the books they published than Bowman had for his own behavior.
Philip Bowman was a man with arrested development who searches for love, but never finds it. It eludes him because he searches for it only in the physical sense and has no understanding of the emotional and perhaps, intellectual needs of his partners.
Salter traces the life of Philip Bowman, a naval officer returning from World War II who lands a position as an editor with a small publishing company. Bowman finds comfort in the women around him, though love is more difficult to secure than success. Through a series of relationships, and their intricate intersections, All That Is explores the full journey of a life.
It's clear from the start that this is a novel written by someone with a wealth of life experience to draw from. At age 88, Salter has a keen sense of perspective, noting everything from the betrayal of the changing seasons to the common mistakes we make when under the spell of another. It's almost as if he has seen the world from every possible pair of eyes and has been told every story; the voice of wisdom in his writing is unlike anything else. He combines his words into gorgeous sentences that feel so effortless and seem to jump from every page.
"He loved her for not only what she was but what she might be, the idea that she might be otherwise did not occur to him or did not matter. Why would it occur? When you love you see a future according to your dreams."
The evolution of Bowman's character throughout the novel is fascinating, but incredibly real; from unsure veteran to wandering divorcée to the flawed man he becomes. Much like those we make in real life, his decisions are sometimes shockingly wrong, but serve to make him feel more human -- if not redeemable.
While some may leave All That Is looking for a more pulsing plot, any reader who appreciates the beauty of written language will easily find love in the first few pages. I've already begun digging up Salter's backlist, I definitely have a new favorite.