Is that it?
Phil Bowman mulls over this unspoken question in All That Is, James Salter’s first full-length novel in 30-some years. It is also his first book of fiction since his 2005 short story collection.
Still writing at age 88, Salter is an inspiration to both writers and readers. The author of 12 books—fiction and nonfiction—Salter’s reputation is not equal to that of his contemporaries Philip Roth and John Cheever. Yet Salter has garnered his share of prestigious awards, primarily for his short stories. He won the 1989 PEN/Faulkner Award (Dusk and Other Stories) as well as the 2010 Rea Award and the 2006 PEN/Malamud Award (Life Is Meals).
Often considered a writer’s writer, Salter is known for his muscular prose and stunning scenes. On a sentence level, Salter’s writing is nearly impeccable. His sentences are clean, with no extra words, and his verbs are precisely honed. With always apt and sometimes exquisite figures of speech and sound and generally written in iambs, the paragraphs often feel like prose poems.
For proof, one does not need to look farther than the first sentence of All That Is: “All night in darkness the water sped past.” Or take the scene in which Bowman witnesses the bombing of the Yamato, the supposedly invulnerable Japanese ship: “[T]he ship had been turning helplessly. It had begun to list, sea was sliding over the deck. ‘My whole life has been the gift of your love, they [the Japanese sailors] had written to their mothers.’” Notice the verbal economy, the irony, the juxtaposition of scenes of destruction and love. Salter blends the two, going right for the heart.
All That Is brims with stellar writing as Salter chronicles 40 years in the life and loves of Phil Bowman. Born in Manhattan in 1925, Bowman (recognizable as a stand-in for Salter because of his age, as well as his military and literary career) is raised by his mother, Beatrice (given the numerous literary allusions here, the name is perhaps an allusion to Dante’s guide), with the help of her sister and brother-in-law.
When Bowman was only 2 years old, his womanizing father left his mother to begin a series of relationships that resulted in three additional marriages and numerous affairs. Although Bowman refuses any connection to his father, he, as the story unfolds, proves to be his father’s son as his own womanizing becomes the focus of the narrative’s discursive, somewhat repetitive plot.
Growing up in Summit, N.J., Bowman is sensitive and idealistic. He serves in the U.S. Navy during World War II, when the novel opens, is admitted to Harvard and studies diligently there, then finds work at a small literary publishing house. All the while, he remains close to his mother.
Although not necessarily religious, she has a deep spiritual sense. When she and Bowman discuss the possibility of an afterlife, which they do several times in this novel, his mother insists that what happens after death is a matter of what you believe. If you believe you will go to some beautiful place, she says, then that’s where you will go.
Bowman isn’t sure what he believes. His marriage to Vivian, a beautiful but vapid young woman, ends in divorce. (Bowman’s mother thinks Vivian has no soul and tried to dissuade her son from the marriage, but to no avail.) From then on, Bowman’s life becomes a journey in which he falls in love again and again, looking for the meaning of life in his relationships with women.
He is proud of his position as an editor and tells numerous stories, replete with writing tips, about actual authors (Thornton Wilder) and invented ones to seduce women until one of them gives Bowman his comeuppance. He pays her back, taking an unthinkable revenge.
As the novel ends, Bowman is an old man and involved with yet another woman. He plans to take her to Venice. Given the context, the notion is suggestive of the Thomas Mann novel Death in Venice. Now, after the loss of his mother, Bowman has begun to think about his own death or, as Salter writes, “[his] unbeing while all else still existed.”
Would his soul join the “infinite kingdom of God?” he wonders. Or is the afterlife merely a wait to cross the dark river while looking for the boatman? Perhaps there wouldn’t be a boatman. There wouldn’t even be a river. Is there life after death? Or is this all there is? That question informs Salter’s disturbing novel.
It’s up to Bowman to decide on an answer.