All That Is by James Salter
James Salter was born in 1925 – which makes him the age of my father. After serving time in the Air Force during the Second World War, James Salter has had a long career as a writer. His most recent book All That Is presented me with a challenge. I think I need to find a man – or a couple of men – to read this book and pass judgment, because for me this novel is flawed by the fact that it seems to me the main character, Philip Bowman, spends way too much time thinking about sex. I know, I know – I’m a prude, but is it really true that men are as obsessed with sex as this guy is? All That Is also made me think of the writing and novels of Ernest Hemingway, and I’ve always wondered what it is about guys and their adoration of Hemingway. So guys, this one is for you.
Philip Bowman returns from the “relentless, merciless” war in Japan. Looking around for a job that involves literature he finds himself hired as an editor for a literary publishing house in New York City. His life in the publishing world is what kept me reading – his observances – a letter framed on the wall, “This is a very obvious book with shallow characters described in a style that grates on one’s nerves. The love affair is tawdry and of little interest, and in fact one is repelled by it. Nothing but the completely obscene is left to the imagination. It is utterly worthless.” His boss tells him that this particular book became “the biggest book we’ve ever had”. All That Is is worth reading just for that.
In spite of my lack of appreciation – or desire to know - of Philip Bowman’s prowess in bed, and his love of big breasts, I did enjoy reading about the world in which he lived. This novel is so very 1950’s, and James Salter’s descriptions of the time and place are spot on, and he throws in, so off-handedly, lovely snippets of delightful conversation or observance. Neil Eddins, Bowman’s closest friend from the war, now a writer, has a conversation with a friend of Bowman’s first wife. She and her friends are pretty girls, but ignorant. When Neil asks if she knows Thomas Hardy, “no” she said briefly. She so obviously has no idea who he is - she only knows about horses. Eddins goes on to make up stories about English writers – she has no idea how little she know about literature. To a literary snob it is very funny.
James Salter, using Philip Bowman’s job as a publisher, tells us a couple of stories I especially enjoyed. One is about a novel Bowman is not going to publish, a story about SS Commander Reinhard Heydrich who – in this novel - perhaps had Jewish heritage, becomes governor of occupied Czechoslovakia and is killed in the ambush of his touring car. The second relates to Will Schwalbe’s wonderful book about the books he and his mother read together during the last years of her life. One of these books was Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara published in 1934, and just re-issued this spring – and here in John Salter’s All That Is, early in the book two friends are talking about Appointment in Samara.
This is the sort of thing that kept me reading as these men wove their way through several sexual relationships and a few marriages. Over their life times it repeats – the intoxication of attraction, of getting to know someone new – and then the few – or many - years of boredom that follow. Eddins hangs in there against all odds, but except for his first marriage Bowman’s relationships don’t seem to last long enough to get boring.
There is the joy and tragedy of life as lived by these characters, the exhilaration of the book world in New York City, and the international travel involved in the story – all enough to keep me reading until the end - I did want to know what would happen. I found myself with very mixed feeling about this novel, but have also found it has stayed with me since reading it. I have thought about the parts I thoroughly enjoyed and have forgotten the parts I did not.