All That Is
by James Salter
All That Is is James Salter's first novel in more than three decades, and it's a knockout. A pitch-perfect example of crisp midcentury prose, it traces the life of Philip Bowman from naval service in the Pacific during the Second World War to his postwar return to the East Coast, college on the GI Bill, and 30-year career in publishing.
It covers such vast territory in just over 250 pages by revealing Bowman's story through the lens of his relationships with women: mother, first love, marriage, divorce, affairs, marriage again, and so on. Though told in the third person, the book's episodic structure (months or years pass with the turn of a page) gives it the feel of a memoir. As Bowman's conquests mount, it may seem as though Salter is trafficking in little more than shameless male fantasy. But a careful reader cannot fail to notice that the narrator is altogether too sympathetic, too non-judgmental of Bowman to be anyone other than the protagonist himself. Is this the book he always wanted to write?
Salter's deceptively straightforward-seeming prose and his preoccupation with sexuality and family dynamics recalls the best of Updike and Cheever. His treatment of the world of publishing and New York's literati in the 1950s and '60s is richly detailed and wonderfully inviting—imagine Mad Men as penned by George Plimpton. Come to think of it, All That Is has everything viewers have come to expect from sophisticated basic-cable dramas: vividly drawn characters, a strong sense of place, nuance and moral ambiguity, and office and bedroom as microcosms of broader social upheaval.
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Review by Don Beistle