Reconsidering “All That Is”

In September, 2017, my wife recommended a book to me. Zoe had read “All That Is,” by James Salter, and she thought I would enjoy it. As so often happens between husbands and wives, I heard what she had to say, but I didn’t act on it. At least, not then.

When I became partially disabled in late November of 2018—a back and leg pain issue which was eventually discovered to be caused by a synovial cyst, but not until February of 2019—I had lots of time on my hands, to think about mortal things and to read, It was then I obtained my own  copy of Salter’s “All That Is,” his final novel.

The book jacket shared glowing reviews of Salter’s work:

“The best novel I’ve read in years. ‘All That Is’ will be treasured by its readers. Salter’s vivid, lucid prose does exquisite justice to its subject—the relentless struggle to make good on our own humanity. Once again he has delivered to us a novel of the highest artistry.” –Tim O’Brien

“A consistently elegant and enjoyable novel, full of verve and wisdom.”—Julian Barnes

“This masterpiece is a smooth, absorbing narrative studded with bright particulars. If God is in the details, this book is divine.” –Edmund White

Perhaps the most pertinent:

“A beautiful novel, with sufficient love, heartbreak, vengeance, identity confusion, longing, and euphoria of language to have satisfied Shakespeare.”—John Irving

High praise indeed from noted writers. Irving’s reference to Shakespeare seemed pointed.

I chose not to read critical comments about the novel before I began it, but I did note that the author I had selected for my 2017 book club selection, Tobias Wolff, the author of “This Boy’s Life,” had said this about Salter:

“James Salter’s writing has always provoked in me a kind of evangelical admiration. It is sheer brute magic. His prose is exquisite, sentences created with such acuity and efficacy it seems he reforges language itself, makes it more purposeful and beautiful.”

Another author I admire, Richard Ford, had said of James Salter, “It is an article of faith among readers of fiction that James Salter writes American sentences better than anyone writing today.”

And so, struggling to find my way out of back and left leg pain, in early 2019, I began reading James Salter’s novel, “All That Is.”

At first, I was struck by how many aspects of the novel resonated within me. Philip Bowman, the novel’s protagonist, was born in 1925, the year my father was born. Bowman served in the Pacific during the end of the war, as did my father. After the war, they both were determined to find someone to love, Bowman with his eventual first wife, Vivian, my father with his first wife, my mother, Verlie.

I was personally taken with Bowman’s choice of a career as a book editor and with his choice to live in New York City. As a boy from a rural area of Washington State, the idea of living in New York City and making a living by reading novels was something I daydreamed about as a boy. I, too, was an avid reader, as Bowman described himself.

We, too, shared another commonality, a closeness to our mothers. Bowman’s father deserted his family before Bowman had memory, when he was two. My father didn’t desert us, but by the time I was six years old, it was apparent my mother was going to ask him for a divorce when they were separated, he living in Chicago, she living in Washington State.

I was asthmatic as a child, constantly ill, spending three of my first six years of life mainly in bed, recovering from constant asthma attacks. My mother selflessly nursed me back to health during those years. And so, when I read this passage from the novel, I understood:

“They were always close, mother and son, without end….Making little word and picture books from folded paper that was sewn together, writing out his first words with him, the many nights that now seemed a single night, putting him to bed and hearing him plead, ‘Leave the door open.’ All of the days, all of it.” I always begged my mother to leave the door open after she tucked me in. And she did.

For as long as I can remember, I wanted something else from my life. I dreamed of leaving rural Washington and living one day on the east coast, maybe attending an Ivy League college (I was accepted to Brown University, but my family had no money for me to attend), graduating with an English degree, living in New York City, enjoying Broadway musicals and plays, walking through Central Park, meeting fascinating people–especially fascinating women–falling in love, going to restaurants and bars, traveling, making new friends, living in the city, more. In retrospect, it sounds like a Woody Allen life, without Soon Yi.

I enjoyed reading “All That Is” so much so that I read it again, immediately after I finished it the first time. That remarkable prose: “Most novels, even the great ones, don’t pretend to be true. You believe them, they even become part of your life, but not as literal truth,” Salter says in this novel. And his occasional aphorisms: “When you love you see a future according to your dreams.” The character descriptions: “Berggren had been made for women. They were, for him, the chief reason for living or they represented it.”

Salter completed “All That Is” when he was eighty-six years old. The artist in him clearly wanted one more chance create, to use his life’s palette to compress Bowman’s lifetime into three hundred pages of observations, impressions, discoveries, loves, heartbreaks, beliefs, reconsiderations, acceptances, joys, and forgiveness.

As I admitted to our group of readers on September 5th, 2019, I read the novel four times. Each time I read it, I discovered passages that I had neglected to pay better attention to, passages with rich descriptions of characters who enlivened the novel and complemented the storytelling.

I was always aware that Philip Bowman was, in the scheme of life, an inconsequential character. He was no superhero, not even an incidental hero. To me, that is part of Salter’s genius. As Lisa Zeidner from the Washington Post wrote in 2013:

“The novel is similar in design and tone to what Salter has always offered: a plaintive, impressionistic look at how we live in time, how little we ever understand about the amorphous shape of our own lives.”

I appreciate what Alan Cheuse said about James Salter in an NPR review from 2013:

“Reading this novel — and rereading it as I’ve been doing in preparation for this review — I found myself in a state that Salter’s work, as with the finest writers we know, often induces. The writing is not breathtaking, but breath-enhancing. One seems to draw in more oxygen; the pulse races as when viewing some gloriously rugged and fast-paced adventure movie, or when, in a dream, you get caught up in some fabulous situation that you never imagined you had the power to invent. It’s not furious action that excites in these pages, however, but rather Salter’s clarity, precision and genius at concision. His emotion-packed sentences, often employing sharp and resonant metaphors, reveal the inner sensations and the truth of ordinary human experience as it plays out over time.”

With all that said, I was not surprised when our group discussion focused for some time on the surprising and troubling relationship Philip Bowman had with Anet, the daughter of his former  love, Christine, which takes place in Chapters 26 (Nothing is Chance), Chapter 27 (Forgiveness), and Chapter 30 (A Wedding).

In brief, Philip Bowman allows a relationship to develop between himself and Christine’s daughter, Anet. It was Christine, perhaps the greatest love of his life, who jilted him, fell in love with another man, and then battled Bowman in court to take away from him a house he had purchased for the three of them.

Philip accidentally meets Anet again years later, invites her to a publisher’s party, smokes hash with her, drinks with her, makes love to her, take her to Paris, parties with her, and then abandons her, leaving her to her own devices—and her mother’s—to get her home from Paris.

For some, this occurrence is unforgivable. Philip is a roué, a scoundrel, and no matter what has happened before this incident, because of Philip’s actions, the novel can no longer be regarded as praiseworthy, even worthwhile.

I’ll begin here by saying that I understand that reaction. It seems to me that most of us would like our fictional characters to be “heroic” or “admirable.” I do understand that.

But, at the same time, I understand that fiction, even reality, doesn’t work that way. Consider the history of some of our other book club choices:

In Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice,” the lead character, Gustav von Aschenbach, falls in love with a teenage boy.

In Aravind Adiga’s “White Tiger,” the lead character, Balram, is a killer.

In Walter Isaacson’s “Steve Jobs,” Jobs is portrayed as a ruthless person, a parent who denies his parenthood, a brutal boss, a venal human being.

In “The Vegetarian,” we view unimaginable situations of depravity.

In “The Perfect Nanny,” we witness even more unimaginable situations involving young children who are killed.

In “The Wrongful Conviction of Oscar Pistorius,” we are asked to forgive a ruthless killer.

In Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer,” …well, enough said.

I find it disconcerting, therefore, that some find Philip Bowman “unlikeable” and therefore the novel “All That Is” unlikeable. When did we ever have to “like” a leading character to make a work of art praiseworthy?

Consider the movie, “Patton” and George C. Scott.

Consider the movie, “Silence of the Lambs” and Anthony Hopkins.

Consider our reading “King Hereafter” and its hero, Macbeth.

In the world of literary criticism, there are several schools of thought about the topic of whether Philip Bowman is forgivable. Here is an example of a critic who doesn’t take issue with Salter’s characterizations:

“I have seen accusations of sexism thrown Salter’s way, and while I find them for the most part to be lazy and reactive, there is nonetheless in his writing an attitude and a method of female portraiture that is rare in today’s fiction and can, to an unsympathetic eye, look timebound.” 

(Adam Rivett, “Sydney Review of Books,” 2.18.14)

However, there is this point of view:

“Salter presents Bowman as a kind of prince, a man we’re intended to admire. He’s a man of sensitivity and refinement, who loves good books, good shirts, good wine and women, though his love for women is almost entirely sexual, and his deepest engagement with them occurs in bed. He is at moments candid about his inability to empathize, but Salter presents this not as a flaw so much as the natural entitlement of man. When Bowman’s wife refuses him in bed, ‘He knew he should try to understand but felt only anger. It was unloving of him, he knew, but he could not help it.’” (“The Cold Heart of James Salter,” Roxana Robinson, Slate, 6.25.13)

Could Salter have suspected that Bowman—and he, himself—would be maligned for his treatment of Anet? I would like to pose here that he did. He knew. For that reason, he prepared us along the way for what was going to happen between Philip Bowman and Anet. Consider the following passages, realizing that Anet was 20 and Bowman was almost 50 when they met in Chapter 26:

“In 1928 at a dinner party in Washington, George Amussen had met Caroline Wain who was twenty with a slow manner of speaking….” (p. 50)

Within a few pages, we come upon an entire passage about young love:

“In the past, girls might be married at twelve, queens-to-be knelt to be wed even younger. Poe’s wife was a child of thirteen. Samuel Pepys’ only fifteen. Machado the great poet of Spain fell madly in love with Leonar Izquierdo when she was thirteen. Lolita was twelve, and Dane’s goddess Beatrice even younger.” (p. 59)

In Chapter 6, “Christmas in Virginia,” we meet a young girl, Darrin, who is visiting the Amussen family home and in conversation with Vivian’s father, George Amussen, whom we discover later in the evening in Darrin’s bedroom, but when we first see them together, Amussen asks the young woman, “All right, Dare. How old are you?” To which Darrin replies, “Eighteen.” (p. 70)

When we meet Enid Armour, one of Bowman’s great loves, during their first dinner together, Bowman asks Enid if she’s ever been in love. Enid corrects Bowman. “Fallen in love?” And she says she had fallen in love as a young woman. Bowman asks, “How old were you?” to which Enid replies, “Eighteen.” (p. 104)

In Chapter 26, “Nothing is Chance,” when Bowman bumps into Anet in the train station and he learns that she is looking for a job in publishing, he invites her attend a party he is throwing in his New York apartment for a book publishing friend, Edina Dell. He doesn’t think she’ll come. Just in case, he writes his address down on a card he gives to her.

She comes. After the party, sitting in Bowman’s living room, Anet notices a portrait painting on a book jacket on a book about Picasso that’s lying on the coffee table. Anet asks Bowman who the woman is. “Marie-Therese Walter,” he tells her. He adds “She’s a famous model of Picasso’s. He met her when she was seventeen. He saw her outside a Metro station and gave her his card.” (p. 244)

Nothing is chance. The similarity. The familiarity. Only Anet is 20. Not 12, 13, 15, 17, or 18, like the other girls Salter has introduced us to. After she and Bowman make love, she feels “complicity,” not guilt or shame. When she returns home, “She thought of what she had done…She hadn’t intended to—she hadn’t seen him in almost four years—but somehow it had happened. It had been a surprise. She felt an illicit pleasure and entirely grown up.” (p. 250)

As a coda to this part of Bowman’s story, we learn in Chapter 28, “Tivoli,” that when Bowman rents a home in Tivoli, he decides to partially decorate it with a photograph of Charis Wilson, taken by the famous photographer Edward Weston. Charis was “Weston’s legendary model and companion.” (p.262)

What Salter doesn’t tell us, but what research does, is that Charis was 20 when she met Weston, who was then 50 years old. Such symmetry.

I believe that Salter, like Bowman, couldn’t help himself. He knew that the brief affair Bowman had with Anet would be a challenge to some readers, and so he built a case for the reader’s forgiveness, page by page, word by word. Whether he succeeded or not is up to a jury of readers.

–Ron Powers

September 11, 2019

About powersron

I'm a member of the Tacoma Retired Men's Book Club.
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