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Review: All That Is by James Salter

All That Is CoverTitle: All That Is
Author: James Salter
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Publisher: Knopf
Rating: 4 out 5

Synopsis:

An extraordinary literary event, a major new novel by the PEN/Faulkner winner and acclaimed master: a sweeping, seductive, deeply moving story set in the years after World War II.

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. His first marriage goes bad, another fails to happen, and finally he meets a woman who enthralls him—before setting him on a course he could never have imagined for himself.

Romantic and haunting, All That Is explores a life unfolding in a world on the brink of change. It is a dazzling, sometimes devastating labyrinth of love and ambition, a fiercely intimate account of the great shocks and grand pleasures of being alive.

Review:

I’m writing this review immediately after reading All That Is. I’m emotionally confused. James Salter did something to me in his writing that I never expected. I grew to love his concise words and phrasing. After taking a month to finish reading this book that I wasn’t sure that I could finish or wanted to, I feel uneasy. I also feel a small smile on my face for finishing the novel and finally becoming attached to the main character, Philip Bowman. It only took a month to do it. I’m left feeling as though I need a hug and an urge to never fear growing old.

I had never read anything by Salter before. I only knew of this book as one of the books people will be talking about in 2013. Before reading, I scanned a few snippets of reviews of his older works. One reviewer described Salter as having an “economy of prose.” No truer description has ever been made. The U.S. government may want to take some tips from him as his words and phrasing contain no fat, yet are effective enough to move the reader. For example, within one page, I went on a first date with two characters and witnessed their engagement. Their entire courtship was reduced to a few lines of text.

All That Is feels like a collection of short stories put together to make one story. Some stories don’t feel as if they are being told chronologically as many times I did not know the date or year of events until the end of the chapter. It was confusing every so often. It also ticked me off a bit because I’d imagine the characters in other clothes or with different hair styles only to find at the end of the chapter that we had progressed to the 70s and were no longer in the mid 60s. Salter may begin a chapter by introducing a new character with the narrator speaking about him as if we were old friends. It’s unnerving, diving directly into someone’s life and knowing the lies they tell themselves to feel better about their situation. The stories do connect, although, I did forget exactly the significance of some names and characters (please see above where it took me a month to finish this book). That took some of the enjoyment away from me.

I spent the better half of this book looking for the central conflict. The one we are shown initially within the description of the book or the set up within the first few lines. I was waiting on Bowman to fight for the love of one of the women he romanced. I was waiting on tragedy to befall him. I was waiting on a fantasy to occur. I was waiting on that happily ever after to arrive. But Salter doesn’t present that. It’s as if with his age, he speaks the truth about life and does it with a rare honesty that is refreshing. Happily ever afters don’t just fall into one’s lap, you have to work for them. His characters lie to themselves and to each other. They become complacent and accept unhappiness or what they deem to be happiness for survival or to avoid being lonely. It’s so real that it hurts. I urge to you take your time with this novel and soak in what Salter is describing.

“Most novels, even the great ones, don’t pretend to be true. You believe them, they even become part of your life, but not as literal truth. This books seems to violate that.”

I feel a strange attraction to Philip Bowman after finishing. My feelings towards him mirror the ebb and flow of the Pacific Ocean he sailed during WWII. The best way I can describe Bowman is to compare him to Don Draper from Mad Men in the first few seasons. I was intrigued by Bowman’s actions although I didn’t understand or agree with all of them. I wanted to comfort him during his return from the war, back to his sleepy hometown of Summitt, New York. His search for a job he felt meaningful and what matched his journalism major can be felt by many new and old college graduates. Bowman wants love. He wants to be loved and he wants someone to love him. I wanted him to find love even when I knew he was only hurting himself or someone else. Through all of Bowman’s romances, that’s what I wanted more than anything. I wanted the “this time, it’s going to happen for him” feeling to come. However much I wanted it to happen, I could always sense that that time hadn’t yet arrived. Salter had a way of showing me that the current woman Bowman was with, wasn’t right for him or vice versa from the character’s introduction. There was a time I hated Bowman. I understood his motives even if neither he nor the narrator knew about them, but that didn’t mean that I wasn’t disappointed with him and what he was doing. But like real life, true life, we all make mistakes and we all fall short. As I said before, I was waiting on a fantasy, but Salter served up real human action.

“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 pages. Not even. He hated her, but what could he do?”

There are many love scenes. None are particularly vulgar, but they do have erotic qualities about them. Just as with other parts of the novel, Salter is fiscally responsible with his words yet I got just enough to fill in the blanks. Philip goes from being unsure about himself to feeling confidence and comfort in his actions. He knows what he likes and that is what makes women attracted to him, even as his age increases. To be frank, Salter enjoys the word “cock.” That is all.

I’d recommend this book for someone who wants something different from the ordinary. All That Is doesn’t feel ordinary at all. This isn’t just a book, it’s literature. Salter uses his characters to teach lessons about real love, friendship, trust, and honesty. He didn’t just tell a story about a man’s life, Salter revealed what it is to live with hopes, dreams, and failures. Just like any good short story, All That Is left me haunted, it left me wondering, it left me hoping, and it left me doubting. This is the first time I’ve ever cried writing a review. I didn’t know this story would affect me as much as it did.

“Have you ever fallen in love?”
“Fallen in love? Been in love, you mean. Yes, of course.”
“I mean fallen. You never forget it.”

I was graced with an advanced copy of All That Is in return for an honest review. Solus ego ueritatem scripturus.

* Previously posted on Literati Literature Lovers

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