Book Review: All That Is by James Salter

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I’ve never read James Salter before. When I read the blurb, it didn’t seem like it would be the sort of book I would enjoy but I was seduced by the cover, a white background to a vortex of parallel ocean blue and metallic silver swirls. But I think we all know what they say about not judging a book by its cover.

All That Is is about Philip Bowman and being seduced by the cover is a good metaphor for him as a main character. He is intriguing to look at, as long as you don’t look too closely, because there is almost a sense of emptiness on the inside. The story starts in the Pacific where Bowman is serving in the navy at the end of World War II. It’s over in the blink of an eye, because that’s not what the story is about, and suddenly he’s back home, scheming his way into Harvard and wanting to fall in love.

Except that’s not what he really wants. Bowman wants sex. I don’t think the character ever really understood that about himself or the author ever really understood that about his character. But he’s shallow and obsessed with pleasure, and in the time period the story is set in, it’s not something that’s freely available.

The novel covers Bowman’s life from when he’s eighteen to when he’s about sixty, not that there’s much worth covering in Bowman’s life. He’s dull but thinks he’s sophisticated, especially when he’s having affairs. He’s heartless and there’s no evidence in the entire book that he ever really understands that love and relationships are about more than just him having what he wants. He is a boy his entire life and never truly grows into a man. He wonders what’s wrong with his life and doesn’t realise it’s him.

There is no narrative. Instead, it’s a list of characters. We get detailed descriptions of them, their appearances and the defining moments of their lives, pages and pages of it until we think maybe the story isn’t going to be about Bowman anymore and then he reappears and the supporting characters we were told so much about disappear. And then we move on to the next character. And the next. And the next. Bowman is the linking thread but the thread breaks with the weight of closer scrutiny.

Nothing happens in this book. I’ve said in a few of my previous reviews that the big three things readers look for in books to make them great are the writing, the plot and the characterisation. Plot is completely absent. Characterisation is absent as well. The book wasn’t hard to read, so there is something to Salter’s writing, but the style is pretentious, like it is trying to be literary and instead ends up inexplicable. In fact, there were several moments in the book that I found poetic – on the occasions I found them I stopped reading and rearranged them on the page and in my head into verses – but they were few and far between. And I actually stopped reading this book and read another book in its entirety in between before going back and finishing it. Hardly the mark of a great novel.

There are five quotes on the cover of this book, all by men. I suspect if the publisher had sought any from women, they would not have thought as highly of it as the men did. I don’t feel like this is a story or a character that women would, should or could appreciate. Despite declarations of love, Bowman never demonstrates he actually loves any of the women he becomes involved with and there are several instances of near rape, particularly with an eighteen-year-old he’s with briefly when he’s middle aged who says no repeatedly and squeezes her legs together but eventually gives in after Bowman’s relentless physical persistence. Romantic, huh? Worse than that, neither the character nor the author seem to realise that they’ve done anything wrong. There’s a selfishness to him, to it.

There’s also a strange homoerotic undercurrent running through the book, especially the sex scenes because he’s constantly flipping the women onto their stomachs as if that’s the only way he can sleep with them. And towards the very end he has a weird discussion with his latest companion about how he doesn’t like the word “gay”, how nobody ever called the Roman emperors gays even though they “swam naked in pools with young boys trained for pleasure”. It comes from nowhere and makes no sense.

I didn’t ever feel any empathy for Bowman and I didn’t feel he deserved any. He judged all women on their looks and whether they would sleep with him. He judged his father for abandoning him and his mother and marrying a handful of times, only to become something worse. He was completely emotionless, lacking in passion for everything in his life, his work, his relationships.

Don’t put any stock in the blurb because it’s what the book should have been rather than what it is. It’s not a “love story”. It’s not “romantic” or “haunting”. It’s not “dazzling” and it’s not “a fiercely intimate account” of anything. All of these descriptions were on the back cover.

Instead it’s disappointing. It’s the kind of literature that puts people off trying to read truly literary and important writing. I’d say it was as dull as watching paint dry but paint is more colourful. If this is “all that is”, there we’re in for very frustrating and ultimately pointless lives.

In a word: unworthy.

P.S. After I wrote and posted this review on Goodreads, as is my habit, I read through a selection of other people’s reviews to see what they had to say. I was shocked to learn that this novel was 30 years in the writing. Knowing that, I wanted to go back and change my rating to 1 star but I resisted. I can only judge a novel on the merits of the novel, not anything else. But seriously, it was this bad after 30 years of trying to get it right? Oh, well.

2 stars

*First published on Goodreads 10 January 2016

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