Desire is one of memory’s most potent accelerants. In “Below the House,” C.P. Cavafy recalls passing by the building where “Eros had taken possession of my body/with his exquisite force.” Suddenly, he writes, “everything was made more beautiful by desire’s spell:/ the shops, the pavements, the stones . . . there was nothing ugly that remained there.”
Few American writers pour this carnal jet fuel onto their fiction quite like James Salter. Born in 1925 as James Horowitz, he flew fighter planes in the Korean War, and retired from it in 1957 to write. His novels and short stories feel like relics of a great fire, scorched and reduced to an essence by memories of erotic experience.
“All That Is,” his latest novel, published in his 88th year, is no exception. This is an elegant and alluring tale of a man’s tumble through life from the deck of a destroyer in the Pacific theater in 1944 to the deck of a weekend house in Long Island some four decades later.
As we follow the book’s daisy-chain narrative, its hero, Philip Bowman, flashes in and out of view. He becomes an editor in the heyday of New York’s hard-drinking publishing era and falls heads over heels for a wealthy woman from the South. “It was love, the furnace into which everything is dropped.”
This sentence is typical of Salter’s style, the stutter-step from a character’s point of view to an aphoristic leap. But after Philip’s marriage fails and “All That Is” begins charting his journey through a series of affairs, something ugly creeps into this book. Decade by decade, as Philip acquires new lovers and more success he begins to resemble a literary Don Draper.
The hero of “Mad Men,” we learned in season two, is haunted by poverty and loss. Bowman isn’t haunted by anything. Yet he moves with Draper’s briskness from affair to affair, which Salter depicts with a frankness at once erotic and auto-erotic. One can almost spot the moment when the author’s brain chemistry changes and a scene becomes less for our enjoyment than for his.
There are many writers for whom desire is a primary compass point: Edmund White, among them. In White’s fiction, however, there is at least some acknowledgement of the provisional nature of what happens in the bedroom. The fact that it is not storyboarded; that it can be frightening; that it is not always clear who is in control. That it is not entirely about penetration.
As if to prove it is authentically of its period, “All That Is” is riddled with the sentiments about women of a past time. The women in this book are either attractive or boldly operating from the handicap of not being desirable. They listen to men talk and occasionally offer themselves to them, like gifts.
Of course, in its defense, “All That Is” can be classified as a historical novel. It begins in the 1940s and ends 30 years ago. Still, there are moments when one feels too neatly thrust back into an antique sexual politics. In one scene, for instance, Bowman runs into an old colleague, whom he knew when she was a secretary, and observes, “She was the age when she could still be naked.”
Later on, after Bowman has seduced, married, and been betrayed by a gorgeous con artist, he is dating a woman who takes the train into New York for oysters and his conversation. “She liked male authority,” Salter writes, “especially his.”
There is, perhaps, an implied arc in Bowman’s life, from the love to which he gives everything, to the love from which he holds back. Still, there’s a fetishistic whiff to the way this book charts his journey through women’s bodies and lives. In bed Bowman is always in charge. In restaurants he orders the right wine. On houses he has excellent taste.
Salter’s best novel, “A Sport and a Pastime,” describes an Ivy League dropout’s torrid love affair with a French shop girl he meets on his indolent grand tour. Published in the late 1960s, it’s a vivid evocation of the dangerous heat of an affair. “Now they are lovers,” he wrote, after his hero finally went to bed with the woman. “The first, wild courses are ended. They have founded their domain. A satanic happiness follows.”
If only there were more insight like this in “All That Is.” Instead there is a surfeit of surface in this book masking for depth. It’s hard to complain, again, because Salter is such a polished and lean writer.
It’s also worth noting that no one in American letters moves a story along through dialogue as naturally as he does. One moment we’re in Bowman’s head, the next in his lover’s, and at the start of a new chapter we’re briefly in the mind of someone entirely new.
It is precisely this skill at dilation, though, that leads “All That Is” to be so disappointing. Chapter by chapter Salter builds a rotating cast of characters who travel through Bowman’s life. Colleagues based on real-life publishers, lovers, would-be lovers, family and friends. They rotate into view expertly and recede elegantly.
Almost all of them view Bowman with universal kind regard. They think very little about anything but money and, to a smaller degree, publishing success. Sometimes about country houses. It’s a joyless, oddly airless world, the one created by “All That Is,” something which gives its title a fearsome glint. Is this all there is? One hopes not.
John Freeman is the editor of Granta.