May 2013

Sabra Embury

fiction

All That Is by James Salter

It's been thirty-four years since the publication of James Salter's last novel Solo Faces. Salter spent more than a year researching the terrain of the Rockies and Alps to write what would ultimately cap his career as a screenwriter. Commissioned by Robert Redford after the far-reaching success of Salter's 1969 screenwriting effort Downhill Racer, Solo Faces was ultimately turned away by the actor due to the reticence in his character's onscreen personality, much to Salter's chagrin. This led Salter to retire from writing screenplays altogether. After he was encouraged to turn his research into a novel, Solo Faces was met with modest success, but from a very particular group. Fitting for someone habitually described as "a writer's writer," Salter's mountain-climbing novel is most highly regarded by mountain climbers.

In Memorable Days, which features selected letters between Salter and critic Robert Phelps, the author reveals his thoughts about Solo Faces while in Aspen in 1978:

Here is the book. You know its unworthy genesis, but forget that. Little, Brown likes it very much. I gave it to them sooner than I would have ordinarily and there are many things I'm dissatisfied with... I tried to write a book that people would like to read, an adventure, there was no other purpose. Of course, there are certain standards one hates to abandon, but first I wrote on the inside cover of my notebook: No Fine Writing! [...] I'm so tired of writing about people who have no intellectual existence. Perhaps that's all I know.

Salter's three-and-a-half-decade novelistic silence since Solo Faces has seen a lot of literary output. He has published a book of poetry, another of travel essays, a fascinating memoir (1997's Burning the Days), and two collections of short stories (PEN/Faulkner Award-winning Dusk in 1989; Last Night in 2005). Perhaps the most endearing of his recent publications is his 2006 collaboration with his wife Kay, Life Is Meals, which includes an entry for every day of the year meditating on a variety of foodie topics from the deliciousness of butter to proper chopstick etiquette.

And of course, in this time, he has become that writer's writer, moving from a cult audience in the middle of the twentieth century to an eager, younger one in the twenty-first. With Roberto Bolaņo and, perhaps, David Foster Wallace, he is one of our time's few writers to be canonized, and his return to long-form fiction at eighty-seven is something to be celebrated.

His latest endeavor proves that Salter meant it when he said he was tired of writing about people with no intellectual capacities. All That Is takes place in the circuit box of the publishing world. The only people who aren't filled with wine-influenced rants are the few whose purpose is to serve as vessels of reverence, appreciated mostly for their aesthetic distribution of facial features, smooth limbs and regal bone structure. But the social aptitudes of these conquests prove to be quite the complement to their celebrated beauty.

All That Is starts out on a steel ship headed toward Okinawa for a final battle with a Japanese vessel stocked to the brim with kamikazes. It's 1944. We meet Lieutenant Bowman, with his enthusiasm for books, and his cabin-mate Kimmel, a lanky lady's man whose "uniform always looked somehow slept in." The descriptions of war are rich: "Men were slaughtered in enemy fire dense as bees, the horror of the beaches, swollen bodies lolling in the surf, the nation's sons, some of them beautiful." But the description of Kimmel's girlfriend, Vicky, brief: "She had blonde hair pulled back, and a touch of daring."

It's more of a quick sketch than what Salter is known for drawing. The the first female we encounter in A Sport and a Pastime is described as having "birthmarks on her leg [...] the color of grape [...] shaped like channel islands" and "a narrow mouth, cast down at the corners, weighted there by the sourness of knowledge." But this is still Salter, and once Vicky is introduced "in her silk dress, the glances clinging to her as she passed," there's no shame in expecting a languorous sex scene lurking around the corner within seconds of the introduction, especially to illustrate a voracious curiosity of displaced possessiveness, which in most cases results with a woman face-down on a pillow in full and grateful submission.

Later, with the war behind him, Bowman graduates from Harvard with a degree in journalism. He finds a job editing theater brochures, and eventually works his way up to a publishing house. Now arrive like-minded individuals who express themselves with panache: "'What a dream I had the other night! I had three cute girls, one after another.'" Neil Eddins, the other editor at the house, "was a southerner, smooth faced and mannerly, who wore striped shirts and made friends easily." It's quick to assume Eddins will represent the chauvinist foil to Bowman, who may not have had the sex with Vicky that any Salter reader suspects.

On St. Patrick's Day, Bowman is lovestruck at a bar on his lunch break by a blond with wide-set eyes named Vivian. They begin a correspondence capped off with a quick and exultant climax, a whirlwind proposal, and a marriage, peppered with omens of failure from Bowman's mother, who "deeply felt that Vivian had no soul, but to say it would be unforgivable." Vivian's dad also refuses his blessing. "'But I won't stand in Vivian's way.'"

Whether Bowman's marriage was willed to fail or doomed from the start, life seems to encourage him to move on, and eventually we meet a colorful array of love interests who fill him with grief and splendor, sometimes on a single page. "She was crying in agony, like a dog near death. They collapsed as if stricken."

Bowman later asks his married mistress in London: "'When men are having affairs, do they sleep with their wives?'" Enid says: "'I would think, yes, but not in this case. He hasn't as much as touched me for a year. I suppose you can tell.'" Bowman is offended: "'I thought it was me.'" Then the conversation is replaced with descriptions of Spanish architecture. Salter has an ability to reveal character truths in tiny conversations, in this case that the protagonist wants to feel potent more than possessive. Not once does Bowman wonder whether or not his mistresses stray. He sees sex as a life force, nourishment, and would prefer the meals he offers provide more due to their flavor than because the person taking the meal is starved.

This reveals Salter most as the epicurean, a catalogist of earthly delights. He has a penchant for doting on details of luxuriousness. Whether it's waiters in white jackets serving supper, oysters, and cold beef, sleeping in a bed with four pillows "lost in the whiteness of them" -- even a man blowing his nose on a linen napkin becomes a "gentleman." He's often subtle, yet well versed in the appreciation of opulent surroundings, as if he's taken them in with a vow to never forget them.

Salter's signature sex scenes are hot as hell, but never over the top:

He woke as the light was hitting the frail lace curtains. The bath restored him. She was still sleeping, not even breathing, it seemed. He looked at her in wonder. As he stood there, her hand came slowly out from the sheets and touched against him, then pushed the towel aside and closed gently around his cock. She lay gazing without a word. It had begun to swell. A small, transparent drop fell to her skin and she raised her wrist and licked it. "I married the wrong man..."

Here is an author who is known for lacing a magnanimous amount of detail into a paragraph without the clutter of unnecessary words. There lies a calm presence, a voice that embodies poetry. His line breaks are commas. His reverence is profound, humble, and romantic. Architecture in harmony with nature's best graces becomes a man with strength in character feeling small underneath the power of spellbinding beauty. He declares helplessness and strength in his worship, and we will all, in most cases, find him as innocent as if he's attending church on Sunday morning.

Relative perceptions will undoubtedly form regarding the moral character of Bowman, as well as the general plot of All There Is. Some could say there is no plot -- but that is inconsequential to Salter's brilliant economy of prose in sentences that utterly singular. Others might say the novel is about the difficulty of finding an ideal partner. Others will say that what little plot there is deals with revenge against a deceptive woman who broke a man's heart, though the man would never admit to holding a grudge in the first place.

All That Is shows more narrative abstraction than Salter's earlier work. His 1975 novel Light Years was a lifelong immersion into a family, a privileged omniscience. All the details were there to render landscapes, building and receding familial pathways from beds in borrowed apartments to trysts in lushly accommodated bungalows. In All That Is, it's less about being a voyeur, though windows still exist. Observe a sentence which could come from no one but Salter in Light Years:

Their children were seven and five. On the river, the color of slate, the light poured down. A soft light, God's idleness. In the distance the new bridge gleamed like a statement, like a line in a letter which makes one stop.

And from his latest:

The landscape was beautiful but passive. The emptiness of things rose like the sound of a choir making the sky bluer and more vast.

Salter's brain seems to resemble a camera, which empties by words onto pages, almost meticulously before moving on to images that inspire new chapters. His renderings, from strangers to intimate acquaintances, paint such a portrait that eventually it's our turn to wonder what he might see in us that we do not see ourselves. After reading Salter, we become self-conscious: stand up straighter, exude a carefree innocence, a calm resignation, a wide mouth with windswept hair, long limbs, thin fingers, bony thumbs, calm indignation, polished shoes -- he is the eye of judgment we cannot escape. To be on his good side would mean to be worshipped and preserved like a god. To be on his bad side would only garner brief pity. To be unrefined in Salter's world is the greatest poverty, where even characters without aristocratic lineage or chic occupations are still given the opportunity to prove themselves with wit, strength, or flamboyant confidence after a second bottle of Bordeaux.

The next time you're out, gazing through a shop window, imagine Salter's omniscient narrator describing the moment. What would he say about your clothes, your posture? Would he think you had an easy upbringing or character in your brow? Would he undress you and have you with your forearms pressed against a pillow? Lastly, would he see you looking back at him, a man whose standards rise far above the antiheroes, hot messes, and corpulent role-scapegoats of today's literature? Salter's bar is set high. His discriminant tastes are captured in a song untouched by the burden of societal decline.

It's clear why Salter is deemed a writer for writers. If writers often see things in a different way, their perceptive tendencies being privy to collecting more detail than there's room to store, Salter shows that the rendering of these details, when stitched with painstaking detail, are a monument for times worth reflecting upon.

All That Is by James Salter
Knopf
ISBN: 978-1400043132
304 pages