Tuesday, June 10, 2014

All That Is

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of All That Is (Knopf, 2013).

Wow. I'd never heard of writer James Salter - evidently, that's true for many readers - until the paperback release of this stunner of a novel from last year. His fans liken him to Updike and Mailer - a big American "man of letters" who tells sweeping stories that span decades, and tells them amazingly well.

There's not a lot of plot to this book, but there's not meant to be. It's a book that you'll occasionally put down, breathless from Salter's mastery of language. There are writers who craft good stories, and there are writers who construct astonishing sentences, and Salter is in that camp. Whatever the hell All That Is ended up being about, I'd have read it, thrilled. He's a "writer's writer," which means that anybody who wishes they had the talent and discipline to write fiction is going to be pleased with how well Salter uses words.

His protagonist is Philip Bowman, and the novel follows him through three decades. He returns home from World War Two, thinks about becoming a journalist, finds himself in New York City and takes a job as a reader for a publishing house. The business suits him very well, and he looks for a wife. Genuine love eludes him, and we simply follow many of his days as he makes mistakes and finds some happiness and people get older and friendships fade and new people enter his life. It's just the story of an adult looking for contentment, brilliantly told.

I love the way that Salter chooses his anecdotes, because that's what all of these and the side stories are, just anecdotes. They could end with a character understanding something they'd miss, or they could lead into the next important phase of life, or they could end in a horrific death, and you won't know why until the episodes reach their climax. Somebody expecting an A, B, and C plot is certain to consider this frustrating, as the story just jumps to the next time and place. It's linear, but there are gaps. We're not meant to know everything.

Salter's prose is so powerful that when Bowman is badly betrayed at one point, I was so furious that I slammed the book shut and left it alone for an hour. Pretty rare for a novel to get that kind of reaction from me. Highly recommended.

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