Salter’s All That Is a very big disappointment

ALL THAT IS

By James Salter

Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95; 290 pp.

James Salter’s first novel in more than 30 years is technically brilliant, filled with sharply etched characters and dialogue both natural and haunting — but soulless, those same characters repellently self-involved and emotionally bankrupt.

Philip Bowman appears first as a junior naval officer at the battle of Okinawa repeating the mantra, “Do your duty fully and absolutely without unnecessary questions or excuses.” He will never again know such moral clarity. The war over, he attends Harvard and is attracted to literature. A small but respected publishing house in Manhattan hires him as a manuscript reader and rapidly promotes him to editor. He thinks well of himself, a gentleman in a gentleman’s occupation: “His life … was like a diplomat’s. He had status, respect, and limited means. … It was a life superior to its tasks, with a view of history, architecture, and human behavior.”

Not everyone agrees. He meets Vivian Amussen, a wide-eyed blonde who sees him as an alternative to the kind of men society has set before her. Her family is from the hunt country in northern Virginia, where her father, George, is “elegant and reserved and also much admired for having done well buying and selling property.” They think they are in love, but when Philip asks George for his blessing, the reply is cold: “I don’t think it would work. I think it would be a mistake.” Philip’s mother, Beatrice, refrains from commenting but thinks it is “love cast into darkness.”

Well might Beatrice know, for her husband abandoned her when Philip was but 2 years old and wed a series of women, each more wealthy than the last. Having married in haste and rebellion, Philip and Vivian repent in leisure and submission.

Vivian returns to her father’s house and horses via a detour to nurse her mother dying of a stroke.

In her letter requesting a divorce, Vivian reveals a hard-earned candor which Philip will never attain: “We really weren’t meant for each other. Maybe I’ll find the right man, maybe you’ll find the right woman, at least someone more suited to you.”

For in London, he has already discovered the new love of his life, the married Enid Armour. To Philip, “it seemed his manhood had suddenly caught up with him, as if it had been waiting somewhere in the wings.” And for a time, Enid embraces both his body and his exultation until she discovers that she is “under some strange obligation to her husband.” She sends Philip away empty and sad.

Yet a plane trip and a cab ride later, Philip has fallen for another married woman, Christine Vassilaros, who has a lovely teen-age daughter, Anet. Before long, Christine takes his love and his money. Before longer, he takes her daughter for malicious and terrible revenge.

In counterpoint, Philip’s mother has been dying slowly from Lewy Body dementia, a brain disease similar to Parkinson’s but with hallucinations. She recognizes that “to the world she knew, to the few friends who had by then drifted away, … it was no longer important that she live.” She discusses death with her son and says, “I think that whatever you believe will happen is what happens.”

By the end of All That Is, Philip Bowman is in his 60s and alone. He lives an easy life of good apartment, theatre, book parties, expense account dinners and travel, but knows that small publishers are being devoured by conglomerates and that the novel, his special expertise, is in decline. He continues to pursue women but recognizes that he is too old to marry: “He didn’t want some late, sentimental compromise.” He recalls the conversation with his mother about the afterlife and imagines the dead “stripped of all but a single, last possession, a ring, a photograph, or letter that represented everything dearest and forever left behind that they somehow hoped, it being so small, they would be able to take with them.” He thinks he has something like that. He is wrong.

Benjamin Franklin Martin is the Price Professor of History at LSU. His most recent book is Years of Plenty, Years of Want: France and the Legacy of the Great War (2013).