James Salter’s Light Years is one of my very favorite novels, ever, so to say I was eager to read his new book, All That Is, is an understatement. And it did not disappoint. Salter is often called a “writer’s writer,” a description with which I agree. The sheer craft of his writing regularly awes me. The sentences, the words, the descriptions: extraordinary.
All That Is follows the life of Philip Bowman from his return from the battlefields of World War II through a career in publishing. His is a story at once grand and disappointing. He achieves professional success, stays close to his mother, forges a few close friendships. But true love eludes him, and we watch this wound grow from the frustration of a failed marriage to the crescendo of a devastating betrayal by a woman he loved. Towards the end of the book Philip takes revenge on that woman in a breathtakingly vicious way, and I still can’t stop thinking about his actions. Part of Salter’s enormous gift is to make relatable a man who can do such a monstrous thing.
Towards the end of All That Is Salter provides a summary of the book’s key dramatic developments:
He’d been married once, wholeheartedly, and been mistaken. He had fallen wildly in love with a woman in London, and it had somehow faded away. As if by fate one night in the most romantic encounter of his life he had met a woman and been betrayed.
Somehow Philip Bowman’s story is both terse and expansive. While tracing the unique details of an individual at a specific moment in time, All That Is also contains the compressed entirety of the human experience. Salter’s writing is spare and powerful, and each scene is etched with care, precision, and the echoing quality of truly great prose. Philip Bowman, while a carefully drawn individual character, also represents a type of man, who floats through life, somehow, with a very light hand on the wheel of his own destiny. There is something ineffably sad about All That Is, because the deep loneliness of Philip’s life is so beautifully evoked, and we see – and feel – the cost of never forming true, intense attachments. Salter is 87, and it’s hard not to feel that this book is somehow both the culmination of – some reviews have called out the story’s autobiographical elements – and an elegy for his life.
I found the story of All That Is engrossing but it is the writing that truly moved me. When Salter describes Philip Bowman it’s hard not to feel he’s describing himself, honoring the work of his life, writing, and its inextricable companion, reading:
“He liked to read with the silence and the golden color of the whiskey as his companions. He liked food, people, talk, but reading was an inexhaustible pleasure. What the joys of music were to others, words on a page were to him.”