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James Salter's first novel in almost 40 years has been praised widely by critics and readers. His protagonist, Phillip Bowman, is a young man who serves as a navigation officer in the Pacific during World War II. When the war ends, he returns home searching for a career and a wife. He finds the first as a a book editor for a publishing house. The happy marriage proves more difficult.. He meets and marries Vivian Amussen, a wealthy and privileged girl from Virginia. But there are strains in their marriage from the start, the least of which is the vast difference in their families and upbringings. As Phillip navigates the years after the war, he struggles to find a relationship that will last and a place for himself in a rapidly changing world.
While this is advertised as Bowman's story, it is not quite that simple. It is more an exploration of a whole world of characters. Bowman will disappear for pages at a time, only to be picked up again as if there was no break. Characters are introduced and followed for a page or two, never to be seen again. This is both fascinating and frustrating. Salter creates a world of really interesting characters and I often found myself so intrigued by an auxiliary character that I was disappointed when they did not appear again. But this creates a disconnect for the reader with Bowman himself. It's hard to connect with a protagonist who is frequently absent and often the least interesting of the bunch.
Salter is often noted as writing beautifully simple prose. He excels at writing sentences that manage to be bare and simple while holding great depth and grace."Day was rising, a pale Pacific dawn that had no real horizon with the tops of the early clouds gathering light. The sea was empty. Slowly the sun appeared, flooding across the water and turning it white."
But the lovely writing doesn't cover some of the book's flaws. Throughout the novel, Bowman acts with no consideration for other people. This doesn't change as time goes on, despite the many failed relationships that litter the story. This gives a stagnant feeling to All That Is. This seems to be an intentional decision on Salter's part, but it gives a weight to the story that makes it difficult to keep reading with enthusiasm. This novel is also decidedly male in that the women in it are more plot points than characters. They are not developed in any meaningful way because Bowman (and Salter) will use them for a few pages and then dispose of them.
All That Is was lauded as a return of a very talented author. Unfortunately, this collection of one man's conquests and failures without much introspection or change doesn't match the excitement this book generated.
All That Is
By James Salter
Alfred A Knopf April 2013