All That Is

James Salter, Picador, £18.99


James Salter was born James Horowitz in New York in 1925, a contemporary of Joseph Heller and Norman Mailer and, like theirs, his first book was based on his experience in the military. After 12 years in the Air Force, in the mid-1950s he published his first two novels and then spent the 1960s trying to break into Hollywood as a screenwriter. It was not until the late 1970s that he settled on his third career as a writer.

Now, in his late 80s, Salter has produced his sixth novel, to considerable acclaim. All That Is tells the story of Philip Bowman, who we first meet as a young man serving in the Pacific War, and follow to Harvard and a lifelong career in publishing.

This may sound thin fare, but then if you were to sum up the plot of Bellow's Herzog it wouldn't sound too exciting: man in midlife crisis writes crazy letters. Salter's writing isn't about the plot or about post-war America; the passing references to Kennedy and Vietnam are derisory. The occasional celebrity turns up: Bowman goes to hear Susan Sontag lecture about film and goes to a party by a Lord Weidenfeld lookalike. None of this is very interesting. The book is really about the writing, which may explain why he's admired by so many fellow-writers, from John Irving to Edmund White, and why he has never broken into the mainstream. None of his books have sold more than 10,000 copies.

There is another issue. How Jewish is Salter's work (he changed his name when he started writing and later took Salter as his legal name)? The answer is not very, indeed not at all. There is lots of sex. Almost 40 sexual encounters with many different women. But it's more Edna O'Brien than Philip Roth. Compare these liaisons with any of the crazy lechery in Portnoy's Complaint. There is also a huge amount of drinking; more bars than in Mad Men and a strange number of drunken women. There are frequent scenes with horses and dogs and much of the novel takes place in the countryside or the suburbs. There is no big history, no big ideas, no humour.

The first encounter with a Jew is revealing. Bowman has started working for a Jewish publisher, Robert Baum. Baum "did not represent the Jewishness of black hats and suffering, the ancient ways". This is not a book with any sense of "the ancient ways". It's too busy drinking scotch and getting laid. At its occasional best, it is a sad, melancholy book about time passing, lives unlived, choices not taken. "All of the days, all of it."

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