James Salter: Like Hemingway and Tolstoy, his themes are war and love
Through sensual portrayals of the ideal life, James Salter's novel of manners follows the glamorous tradition of Scott Fitzgerald. The hero, Philip Bowman, has rapturous dreams and wants to achieve perfection. He devotes himself to the fleeting hedonistic pleasures of landscapes, water, houses, views, parties, talk, taste, food and drink. Suggesting the allure of travel and evoking the spirit of place, the book moves restlessly from Manhattan, Long Island and the Hudson River Valley to lively scenes in England, France, Italy, Greece and Spain. En route to Granada, he sees "the sunbaked country float past the window of the train, through his own reflection. There were hills, valleys, thousands upon thousands of olive trees."
All That Is, describing 40 years of Bowman's adult life from 1945 to 1984, opens with an exciting account of a naval battle near Okinawa that tests his courage and reveals his character. As the Japanese battleship Yamato is hit by torpedoes and planes, "waves swept over it and men clinging to the deck were carried off by the sea in all directions. As it went under, a huge whirlpool formed around it, a fierce torrent in which men could not survive." In Salter, as in novelists from Tolstoy to Hemingway, the major themes are war and love.
Seeking a privileged existence, Bowman pursues the sad ambitions of the flesh. The novel is loosely structured by his relations with three blond women. His divorced wife, Vivian, comes from the Virginia horse country where, as Fitzgerald wrote of another setting, "people played polo and were rich together". She has fine skin and the gift of allure. But she's also an unsuitable consort, shallow and superficial, intellectually limited and meager of utterance. The Englishwoman Enid, the great love of his life, lives in London, separated from her husband but still married. Christine betrays him, first with a lover, then with a theft.
The novel contains two dozen sexual encounters, including a vengeful episode with a teenage girl. Though three of the ripe and randy women have not made love for more than a year, the mood is more lyrical than lubricious. In one scene, Bowman's friend "loved everything, her small navel, her loose dark hair, her feet with their long, naked toes in the morning". Bowman "went in slowly, sinking like a ship, a little cry escaping from her, the cry of a hare". Battered after three losses, the embittered, self-absorbed Bowman (an archer who has missed his mark) is still idealistic. He feels that somewhere, as Salter wrote in his military memoir Burning the Days, "the true life is being lived, though not where you are". Bowman finds pleasure elusive but, romantic and longing for the unattainable, heads with his latest girl for the exotic ambience of Venice. The last line of the novel, "Yes. Let's go in November. We'll have a great time," echoes the end of The Sun Also Rises: "‘Oh, Jake,' Brett said, ‘we could have had such a damned good time.'"