What began as gorgeous elegiac memory about misplaced courage and final hope as World War II comes to an end in the Pacific, devolves into a middle-aged man’s tedious reflections about his search for meaningful connections, especially with women, as he recalls his privileged life over too many decades.
While the writing never wavers from immaculate and restrained (given even more gravitas by narrator Joe Barrett’s controlled, genteel recitation, if you choose to go audible), disappointments can’t be ignored; for all of James Salter’s oft-repeated ‘writer’s writer’ accolades and awards, stripped down to pure storytelling, All That Is is shockingly racist and interminably sexist. More fair warning: spoilers ahead.
Philip Bowman is the quintessentially elegant, entitled (white male) protagonist; his name encapsulates his character exactly – a philandering, ‘beau’ man. He returns home to his divorced mother in New Jersey after his Navy service, talks himself into Harvard after an initial rejection, settles into a New York City job with a small publishing house, and embarks on his lifelong career as an editor. His only marriage to a woman so unlike himself ends quickly, albeit not before he has his first affair with, of course, a married woman. He reads, he meets writers, he has many drinks in glamorous places. His bed partners change with regularity, until he’s finally ready to go off to Venice with his latest conquest by book’s end. Right.
The shrill alarms begin with lurid details about a southern gentleman’s proclivities for a teenaged African American maid, so clearly delineated as a power deal as he lines up silver dollars along her naked body as both aphrodisiac and payment. For all his charming polish, Bowman’s own skeeze factor surfaces when a wasp stings his almost-stepdaughter Anet’s nubile teenaged backside, which he attends to with a cold washcloth while wishing for more. Forty pages later, he meets Anet on a Manhattan street as a young adult, manages to take her home, dopes her up, and you can guess the predictable rest. What’s most disturbing is that he entices her to Paris, only to abandon her in their hotel room without warning, an act that can only be construed as cowardly, immature revenge for Anet’s mother’s betrayal years before – a disposable daughter of a replaceable mother. But no worries – Salter makes sure his beautiful man never experiences a shortage of willing women.
Absent from publishing for over three decades, Salter quickly made headlines while All That Is hit best-of, most talked-about, capitalized-Important lists. Perhaps disguised in such impeccable prose, readers are unwilling to judge the actual narrative; perhaps the characters are so doused in enviable entitlement as to be above general judgment. Misguided, too, by such public adoration, I managed to survive all 10-plus hours (or 300 pages if you choose the book). I finished with lesson learned (once again): squelch the curiosity and skip the inflated bestsellers. Bowman, ironically, would probably have told you the same.