ALL THAT IS. By James Salter. Knopf. 304 pages. $26.95.
James Salter, a writer who does not waste words (or mince them), strikes me as the literary equivalent to painter Andrew Wyeth, whose masterpiece “Christina’s World” shows a gaunt young woman, unable to walk because of polio, propping herself up in a dry field some distance from her home. We see her from behind, looking with what we imagine in longing and frustration at her farm house.
The house and its companion buildings seem unreachable astride the top of the bluff, and it’s as if the small grouping of buildings mocks poor Christina, her hair disheveled by the relentless breeze. The horizon line runs high across the painting, and the leaden sky appears to have as much substance and weight as the hard earth.
The sense of isolation is palpable. The humanity in the picture is like a scream.
Salter, who shares Wyeth’s northeastern sensibilities and writes sparse, poignant prose that captures the essence of things, reminds me of the muted grays and browns, and the careful detailing, that the painter applies to his canvases. Never is there too much information; indeed, often there is very little. We get only the basics, yet they convey centuries’ worth of human frailty.
In his latest book, the novel “All That Is,” Salter’s famously detached style — his pristine prose, his supernatural ability to get to the heart of the matter and his keen descriptions and dialogue — are on full display, beginning with a remarkable opening about war that establishes the character of Philip Bowman.
Salter’s perspective — that detachment, that ability to observe from a distance — perhaps was forged during his years as an Air Force pilot. He turned to writing full-time in his 30s, then pursued a brief career in Hollywood before settling into fiction and memoir.
“All That Is” is his fifth novel, and the first since “Solo Faces” was published in 1979. It is quasi-autobiographical insofar as its main character shares certain experiences with its creator: military experience, failed relationships and a certain deer-in-the-headlights wonder at the world, both its beauty and cruelty.
The plot, which is really the arc of a whole life, tells of Bowman, who took an early interest in literature and fell into the publishing business in New York City after World War II. He sustained a respectable career, met some interesting people and aged with some grace, but not without leaving a carcass or two in his wake, and not without hard blows to his naivete.
As a writer, Salter is like a bird of prey scanning his targets from on high. There is no need to linger one’s gaze on the looming mountains or roiling seas if the object of one’s focus simply scurries along the barren path.
In his short stories and novels, Salter hones in on the essence of things, often using just a few perfect words to execute his moves.
His dialogue is at once austere and complex, conveying depths of meaning between the lines. Consider this passage from the new novel:
Other guests were coming in. Diana left to greet them. Baum stayed to talk on with Christine, he liked her looks. After the party, he asked his wife,
“What did you think of Philip’s new girlfriend?”
“Is she new?”
“Well, not exactly new but certainly not old.”
“No, she’s quite a bit younger.”
“It’s made him a bit younger.”
“Yes, that’s the general belief,” Diana said.
From that quick scene, which despite its casualness reveals key details, Salter immediately climbs to a higher altitude and tells us that Bowman’s ailing mother died that spring.
“She had never told him all she knew, nor could he remember all the days of childhood and things they had done together. She had given him his character, a part of it, the rest had formed itself somehow.”
This describes, somewhat, Salter’s own writing. He does not tell you all he knows, and his books, including this one, have a magical effect, as if they are meticulously formed by their author yet ready to absorb all that the reader brings along, his own worldview and prejudices, his own failures at love and his halting accomplishment.
Some have accused Salter of misogyny. His male protagonists don’t seem to understand or respect women. Rather, they view women as vessels of sexual desire and mystical creatures meant to consummate some abstract notion of manhood. But I don’t view this as insensitive; Salter is who he is, a product of his time and experience, and he is, I think, acutely aware of this conundrum (which every writer endures, even if they don’t always admit it).
When he tells us about Bowman’s cruel ex- ploitation of the young daughter of the woman who had used him mercilessly, mocking his ardor and innocence, Salter seems to be confessing his own lifelong misunderstandings and failures.
“All That Is” is a deceptively ambitious book. Its relaxed pacing belies its scope and reach. As we follow Bowman through his life and watch (somewhat voyeuristically) his nonchalance, loneliness, sexual escapades, disappointments and bewilderment, we are bearing witness to something truly fundamental: the inescapable reality of the modern, middle-class experience.
Bowman is one example of the millions of American men who grope and question and exalt and fail during the course of their complicated lives. “All That Is” is Bowman’s particular story, Salter’s version of an imperfect existence.
We follow along as a life raft bobbing in gentle waves follows the subtle ocean current. The current has its direction, yet is infinite. It concentrates the waters while blending them into the surrounding sea. It knows where it is going but meanders along as if blind to the energies at play all around it.
Salter’s lifelong literary work (he is now 88) is like this current: a force that plows through the turmoil of the world but can hardly be felt when we are immersed in its flow.
Reviewer Adam Parker is book page editor.