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'All That Is' review: Life after war

Book cover of

Book cover of "All That Is" by James Salter. Credit: AP

ALL THAT IS, by James Salter. Alfred A. Knopf, 289 pp., $26.95.

James Salter has been called "The Master," and like last year's movie of that name, his sixth novel opens in the Pacific Theatre of the Second World War, on the eve of the landings on Okinawa:

"In tier on tier of iron bunks below deck, silent, six deep, lay hundreds of men, many faceup with their eyes still open though it was near morning."

Here "All That Is" picks up the life of Navy lieutenant Philip Bowman, following him after the war, via Harvard, to New York City, up through ranks of the publishing world and across all the affairs, heartbreaks, jealousies, vacations and uptown dinner parties that such a career once entailed.

Bowman's life is blessed -- which is not to say it is free from hardship. Rather, Bowman possesses an appreciation of his life as a kind of artistic experience unfolding only for him. It is both Bowman's gift and curse that he is the type of man who is constantly approached by rich, beautiful women at parties who wish to complain about their husbands, and the story of his life is one told almost entirely through love (or lust, as the case may be).

It doesn't hurt that Bowman's life, like Salter's, coincides almost perfectly with the rise of American power and the brief, golden era of publishing. Bowman sees his own life, in its autumn, as intertwined with the life of publishing: "The power of the novel in the nation's culture had weakened. It had happened gradually. It was something everyone recognized and ignored. All went on exactly as before, that was the beauty of it. The glory had faded but fresh faces kept appearing, wanting to be part of it, to be in publishing which had retained a suggestion of elegance like a pair of beautiful, bone-shined shoes owned by a bankrupt man."

One of Salter's great gifts is to allow his main characters to disappear gracefully into the universe of his books. "All That Is" is not only the story of Bowman's life but also of almost every life with which his intersects, several even twice removed. Some of the book's most affecting passages are those leading up to a disaster that befalls the love interest of one of Bowman's associates, alone and in the middle of the night:

"Finally the train began to move again. The country went past like a somber painting, trees in the darkness lit by the windows of the train. Lone, sleeping houses, black and silent. The lights of a town with vacant streets. Dena felt a strange happiness in the quiet of the compartment."

It's in these private moments that Salter's prose is most effective at describing what it feels like to be alive.

Salter is the definitive American "writer's writer," and classics such as "A Sport and a Pastime" and "Burning the Days" are recommended. This June, Salter, who has a home in Bridgehampton, will turn 88. This expansive novel (his first in more than 30 years) is a worthy summation of his underappreciated writing life.

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