In widely admired novels like “A Sport and a Pastime” and “Light Years,” James Salter’s great subject has been the often highly charged relations between men and women. His new novel, “All That Is,” revisits that subject in a mature, unsentimental story of one man’s restless search for love. That Salter is still producing work this appealing only two years from his 90th birthday makes it an even more impressive achievement.
“All That Is” follows Philip Bowman over four decades as he moves from World War II service in the Pacific to a career in publishing when it was “a different kind of business, it was a gentleman’s occupation, the origin of the silence and elegance of bookstores and the freshness of new pages.”
The connective tissue of the story is the series of romantic entanglements into which Bowman slips almost haphazardly. His relationships flourish and fade in a variety of sharply observed settings. Whether his setting is the Virginia horse country, a stylish dinner party in London or a Seville cafe, Salter writes with authority. And in painting those scenes, he captures the angst of the privileged classes who seem to have all anyone could desire and yet long for something that lies just out of reach.
Salter has long been lauded for his effortlessly beautiful prose and his deft characterization. Those talents are undiminished. One of Bowman’s lovers is “damaged though she did not appear to be. Her beauty was unwary.” Bowman’s life is “like a diplomat’s. He had status, respect, and limited means.” As a young man, he believes that “when you love you see a future according to your dreams.” By the novel’s end, haunted by a failed marriage and broken relationships, his faith, if shaken, remains intact: “He believed in love — all his life he had — but now it was likely to be too late.” And yet, he understands he has lived “the life beyond reckoning, the life that had been opened to him and that he had owned.”
After a lifetime in the publishing business, Bowman concedes that “the power of the novel in the nation’s culture had weakened.” Even the most passionate reader today probably would agree with that assessment. Happily, writers like James Salter remain, and as long as that’s true there will be an audience for quality fiction like this exquisite novel.
Harvey Freedenberg is a freelance reviewer and member of the National Book Critics Circle.