Whether naturally born or G-force bred, fighter pilots embody a unique strain: their hell-bent defiance of physical laws kept in check by a meticulous respect for man-made machinery. After serving a dozen years in the Air Force – flying combat missions in the Korean War – James Salter applied that elevated mix of risk and control to definitive novels of erotic discovery and marital malaise. As the author now approaches ninety, his latest novel, All That Is, finds the former officer devoted to a trio of tasks: setting his affairs in order, offering loving remembrance, and demonstrating his intent to stand firm to the end.
All That Is wastes no time making this final point clear, quickly moving through the theater of war in the Pacific to a reverent description of a Japanese battleship sailing toward certain annihilation:
“Through the green water of the harbor, late in the day, long, dark, and powerful, moving slowly and gravely at first, a bow wave forming, gathering speed, almost silent, the large dock cranes passing in silhouette, the shore hidden in evening mist, leaving white swirls of foam trailing behind it, the Yamato headed for sea.”
On the American side, Salter narrows his lens on Phillip Bowman, a handsome but undistinguished Naval Officer whose post-war career through four decades of New York publishing provides the ballast for All That Is. Bowman begins as unmolded clay, his personality and cares shaped by the individuals who pass through his life: gregarious sailors and Harvard dandies, Virginia landowners and British dog trainers, Lords of Literature and sensual divorcees.
Salter establishes character through dialogue – even tangential roles merit a speaking part – and further defines the characters in All That Is by how they acquit themselves in the face of death. This approach comes full circle from Salter’s debut novel, The Hunters (1956), a narrative of kill-seeking Korean War pilots in which death stalked the bravest and most selfless aviators while the reckless, the cowardly, and the just plain lucky were rewarded with survival. Over a half-century ago, in The Hunters, Salter wrote:
“There was a way to live and a way to die. He was supposed to show them that. It was what you had to demonstrate to be a leader.”
Following a lifetime of perspective, All That Is instead presents death as a level equalizer, a fate that can be summoned in the voice of an anonymous Spanish street singer or through allusions to poetic greats: “And for death, as Lorca said, there is no consolation, which is one of the beauties of life.”
One the profound beauties of All That Is comes from watching a writer so late in years offer a measured and composed take on the unavoidable end. Through a powerful show of noblesse oblige and the ultimate exhibition of the literary cliché “show don’t tell,” Salter upholds the task of leadership set forth in The Hunters and demonstrates how to stare down fear and unknowing. By following his calling. By doing his job.
Despite the shadow of mortality, All That Is never devolves into something black or morbid as Salter simultaneously takes the opportunity to indulge a deeply nostalgic celebration of life. There are immediate personal parallels – like Salter, Bowman was born in a terrific storm and Bowman’s favorite uncle in All That Is bears an uncanny resemblance to the beloved uncle in Salter’s memoir, Burning The Days (1997), straight down to the hair on the man’s arms and the story of the brain tumor that led him to run off with his secretary.
In that memoir, Salter wrote that words and memory are both a person’s country and their true measure of value, and with All That Is Salter returns to those things that have meant the world to him. Fluent language, languorous travel, sexual largess – the author takes tangible pleasure in reliving each of these moments as he sets them down forever on the page.
There are fabulous galas and barefoot days by the shore; times of family and times of solitude; talk of books, talk of theater, talk of art. Describing a work by Francis Bacon, Salter writes that within the figurative painter’s art: “There was all that had happened in the world during one’s life.” With so many stories to tell, Salter’s prose in All That Is takes on a digressive, avuncular quality, allowing summative constructions and wandering asides that are unlike the precise compression of his best known novels, A Sport And A Pastime (1967) and Light Years (1975).
Rather than hew to formal plot arcs, Salter has typically turned his flyer’s eye to the bell-curve of relationships, whether at rise or plateau or descent. A Sport And A Pastime traced the rush of erotic exploration as far as commercial lubricants and creative positioning could carry a mismatched pair, while Light Years measured the growing distance between the partners in an ideal marriage, their lives in perfect orbit save one fatal flaw – the sexual connection no longer held them in sync.
In All That Is, Bowman becomes his most substantial during the heart-pounding stages of new affairs, and Salter affords his protagonist the opportunity to explore multiple passions with all the arrogance and awe of the author’s 1970’s-swagger. As a novel, All That Is exists very much out of time – the narrative spans from WWII to the pre-internet/pre-cell phone era, and when date-markers do invade (such as a jarring mention of the Kennedy assassination at the tail end of a Spanish tryst), the effect is like someone checking their watch while letting you leaf through their photo albums.
While Salter can hardly be blamed for staying within his comfort zone, All That Is would have been a more potent artistic achievement had the narrative mastered a greater balance of risk and control and dared to grapple with all that really is – up to and including the point where a proud and competent man adapts (or doesn’t) to major changes in technology and demographics. Salter’s nostalgia for bygone eras bathes Anglo-European dominance in the whitest light, writing of privileged Virginia as “a place of order and style” and referring to the postwar American South as a region where “Decency, that was a word you lived by.”
Though sexually-liberated, Salter’s angle on New York (and the country as a whole) remains culturally limited: in All That Is, a few black women pop up as cheap sexual objects, South America remains a totally foreign territory, and the author holds ethnic encroachment at bay by rendering it invisible. Meanwhile, the sexually desirable women in Bowman’s life tend to lack professional competence and discipline while the smartest and sharpest women are inevitably homely or game.
Largely, those quibbles can be brushed off with an understanding that the author has selected the memories he holds the closest, and there’s a characteristic defiance in Salter’s refusal to conform to modern agendas. Even so, late in the novel All That Is suffers a nasty blot during a spiteful and an atypical episode where Bowman (then in his fifties) seduces a young college graduate, abusing his position in the literary world to press himself on a woman he knew as a teen.
Narrative in fiction is blameless – the events set down on the page exist outside moral judgment – but an author’s handling of those events is not, and Salter presents this sequence as if Coetzee had written Disgrace in reverse, with all the empathy-building life experiences leading up to a crowning moment where the protagonist uses his significant power advantage to prey on a much younger woman. Defiance dies hard, and Salter’s Hefner-proud treatment of the affair brings a quality of risk that’s mostly absent from All That Is, but it’s stubborn and controlling risk, that of a retired pilot cornering at 80mph on country roads, forcing his family to white-knuckle the ride just to prove he can.
This contrarian streak stands at odds with one of the truest gifts of the novel: that new work can revive all that came before. As a prophetic bit of career-foreshadowing, throughout The Hunters random chance and a personal code of honor prevent the most capable pilot from racking up the recognized “kills” that bring awards and acclaim to his more callow peers.
At the Millennium, as The Modern Library, Time Magazine, and others compiled canonical lists of the Century’s great novels, Light Years was consistently passed over for works by John Updike, Richard Ford, Richard Yates – worthy contemporaries, with the primary slight being that Salter was so routinely left out of the conversation.
Even before All That Is, a groundswell of appreciation followed Salter’s most recent book of short fiction, Last Night (2006), bringing renewed attention to his earlier collection Dusk (1988) and reminding readers why Light Years and A Sport And A Pastime carry into the 2000’s as such vital works. As did Last Night, in specific sentences All That Is reveals an eye for light, space, and order that Salter still renders with elite precision:
“On a Sunday morning when the heat of the day had not yet begun but the light was dazzling all along the beach, the surf in a line almost violent in its brightness, they sat near the dunes with sections of the paper, reading in contemplation, feeling the sun.”
All too often, the outpouring of respect for an author comes in memoriam, too late for the artist to take any contentment from their career’s reach. With All That Is, as he opens up the country of his words and his memories, telling the story that’s less a story than a life, Salter has assured the ability to see his legacy to the last.