Rough surf

James Salter

The latest novel from masterful writer James Salter, All That Is, is more expansive than some of his other work, and is one of those novels that attempts to chronicle an entire life, in the process taking snapshots and skimming over major developments as it traces a general arc. Salter’s narrative moves from snippets of tight conversation to more expansive descriptions, and from the main character’s life to the lives of those he encounters . The title could be taken in this way to mean encompassing a life, but there is also the hint of existential enquiry, as in “is this all there is?”. Certainly the life of the main character Philip Bowman is described from the viewpoint of his love life, suggesting that love is the point of life. But there are also short but significant conversations about what happens when you die, which work to put the spotlight back on the here and now.

The novel begins and ends with the imagery of water – the immensity of the ocean primarily – and we can bring to it those tropes of life being a river and all that. Tellingly, there are scenes describing the exhilaration of swimming in rough surf (and surviving), which can be taken as a metaphor for a way of living. The main character is a World War II veteran, which seems to (subtly) colour his view of life, in both (somewhat contradictorily) taking what comes and seizing on the immediacy of life’s moments (particularly, in this book’s case, love and sex). There is, ultimately, a certain emptiness, or at least fleeting quality about this, particularly as he moves from one woman to the next (not that he is a womaniser exactly). What is described in rapturous terms slowly fades.

The character is an editor, so this is one of those books about books. East Coast American twentieth century. The dizzy centre of modern publishing. Salter says of his character at one point, “What the joys of music were to others, words on a page were to him”. So this gives Salter the chance to write what he knows, presumably.

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