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James Salter: All That Is
James Salter was one of those writers often known as a writer’s writer, which means that he got good reviews, was well respected by other writers but only had poor sales. Indeed, when he published this book, it had been thirty-four years since his previous one, Solo Faces. On the publication of this one, he was essentially rediscovered but died in 2015. This book received considerable praise and, while it is certainly a good book, I do not think that it is of the same standard of the earlier novels.
The basic themes of the book can said to be sex and transience. The vast majority of the characters in this book, when we meet them are either divorced or separated or are going to be (as was Salter himself). As there is a fairly large cast, this is a large number of marital/relationship breakdowns. What is both interesting and sad is that many of them rush into these relationships with great enthusiasm and often great passion. They seem, in many cases, to feel that their partner is the one fairly early on, often only after a day or two, and then the passion and enthusiasm gradually dwindle, till the next one comes along. This may, of course, be Salter’s own experience but I wonder if it really reflects that segment of US society he is dealing with (East Coast middle class of the second half of the last century).
The main character is Philip Bowman, born, like his creator, in 1925. He barely knew his father who disappeared from his life when Philip was two. Philip follows his succession of marriages/relationships to society women in the press but only learns of his death two years after the event and then only in an obituary of his last wife. Philip’s mother, Beatrice, is understandably quite bitter but carries on with her life and raising her son. Philip joins the navy and sees active service in World War II, ending up in Japan. Back home, he manages to get into Harvard but is unsure of what he wants to study. Though he has never been to England, he is fascinated by the Elizabethan Age and wants to study that. He then considers biology before opting for journalism. After graduation, he cannot find a a job and is offered the job of a publisher’s reader with a small but well-thought off publisher. He eventually becomes an editor and spends the rest of his career in that position. This gives Salter the chance to introduce us to a host of writers and others associated with the publishing industry, both real and fictitious. The only fictitious one I recognised was Bernard Wiberg, who was clearly based on George Weidenfeld.
However, it is his personal life that is the more interesting aspect of Bowman in this novel. He meets Vivian, an upper class young woman from Upperville, Virginia, a very posh place. It is apparent to us that they are not going to mesh well but Bowman falls madly in love with her and she eventually reciprocates. Her father (divorced, of course, and later to remarry) feels that the relationship will not work but will not stand in his daughter’s way. They marry but, shock! horror!, Vivian will not clean up their apartment and when she goes off to look after her mother who has a stroke and is now living with her father, i.e. Vivian’s grandfather, she writes to Bowman telling him that it is not working. Salter has his dig at her: Bowman forgot the fact that girls, in time, became like their mothers. Her mother is an embittered drunk. To be fair, he was unfaithful to Vivian before, though Vivian knows nothing of this infidelity. His subsequent relationships are not too successful either. His colleague and friend, Neil Eddins, is one of the few that seems to make a success of marriage but Salter is not going to let him get away with that and kills his wife and stepson off in an accident.
The other aspect of transience is the way Bowman and others seem to change residence frequently. When he finally does find the house he has always been looking for, he is cheated out of it by his current girlfriend who, unknown to him, has met, slept with and fallen in love with (all on the same day) a man she met by chance. But he does get his revenge.
From a novelistic point of view, this book’s main problem is that it introduces a whole host of characters who, with one or two exceptions, drift into the novel and then drift out, never to be heard of again. While that is not necessarily a fault – many good novels do the same successfully – the main character, Philip Bowman, is not a strong enough character to sustain the novel on his own. He meets a writer. He meets a woman and has a fling with her but it does not seem to work. You wonder where it is all going. Sadly, the answer is nowhere much. From a more social point of view, I do really wonder whether the impermanence of both relationships and residences is really as extreme as Salter has made it out to be. I have known many Americans who do not feel the need either to change partner or residence on a regular basis. Salter’s experience obviously will be very different from mine and clearly his own personal experience is going to inform his work. While this is certainly not a bad book, I find it a little sad that his legacy should be such an essentially unhappy story.
First published 2012 by Alfred A. Knopf