Past Times of a Present Master

Underrated American author James Salter’s latest novel, at its best, evokes Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Tolstoy

Books Literature

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.'”

Bowman is a successful editor and this bookish novel is filled with subtle allusions and literary anecdotes, from Byron’s death in Greece and Lorca’s execution in Spain to Pound’s incarceration in a madhouse and Hemingway’s description of gangsters in “The Killers”. Bowman has a wide acquaintance and there’s a Tolstoyan profusion of characters, most divorced and many alcoholic. Delineated in a few striking phrases, they make brief but vivid appearances and then vanish.

Salter’s style is pure and elegant, his dialogue sophisticated and witty. One indolent character has “the handsome face of someone who had never done much”. “Photos from the summer curling” suggest couples curling up in the summer. A friend asks Bowman, “‘Whatever happened to that sultry girl who was having an affair with your rich father-in-law?’ ‘He died, you know.’ ‘It was that intense?'” 

Salter’s descriptions of weather and animals recall the best of Hemingway: “It had snowed before Christmas but then turned cold. The sky was pale. The country lay silent, the fields dusted white with the hard furrows showing . . . The foxes were in their dens, the deer bedded down.”

There’s a fine account of a dangerous, near-fatal swim in the ocean: “The bottom was gone, his foot could no longer touch it. He fought against the panic. He was rising and falling in the swells, the waves thundering.”

The novel ends with an oneiric meditation on time, death and memory that echoes the epigraph: “everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.” Art is life perfected, captured and rescued from time. Like Thomas Hardy, Salter, in his late eighties, has continued to write well and produced an impressive work of art, a worthy successor to A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years.