Today marks the under-the-radar publishing event of the year: a new James Salter novel! All That Is is the 87-year-old Salter’s first novel in 34 years — since 1979’s Solo Faces. In that time, however, Salter has published several volumes of short stories, a screenplay, a few books of poetry, a few collections of essays, and a friggin’ cookbook. He’s an American treasure.
Rioter Rebecca and I were lucky enough to get pre-publication e-galleys of All That Is. Here’s what you need to know about what is likely Salter’s last novel.
Greg Zimmerman: So, even though I was very aware of Salter as an American paragon, embarrassingly, I’d actually never read him until you talked me into trying his most well-known novel, A Sport And A Pastime a few weeks ago. I loved it! In addition to being an elegant, atmospheric, poetic piece of fiction — it’s more than a wee bit naughty, too. And it’s fair to say All That Is continues what is apparently one of Salter’s signatures — liberal use of the sexytime scene. How come we only co-read books with the liberal use of the sextime scene?
Rebecca Joines Schinsky: Because we clearly have our priorities in line, and we needed to balance all that silliness with some seriously good sex scenes! The way Salter writes sex is singular in contemporary American fiction — as you said, it’s both steamy and elegant — but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. I want to rewind and say, first, that I don’t want to talk about the possibility of this being Salter’s last novel. Let’s just leave the blinders on, OK? More important, let’s talk about how he deserves to be widely considered as part of the American canon and for some reason isn’t. How is this possible? Salter is every bit as good as, say, Philip Roth (I’d argue that he’s better), and he gets no love. What gives?
GZ: Well, I’m not the right person to comment on why Salter isn’t as canonical as one of my top three or four favorite living writers. But I can say this: All That Is is giving me serious Salter “backlist itch” — I feel like I want to drop everything and go back and read every word the man’s ever written. Maybe All That Is will have the same effect among other readers – at least among readers who enjoy the literariest of the literary. Some readers interrupt that to mean short on plot, long on device, but there’s definitely a strong plot here — World War II veteran and New York book editor Philip Bowman does his best to navigate loves and losses in mid-20th century America. But it’s what Salter has going on under the covers that makes this truly satisfying. The meandering mini-character sketches. The gorgeous vignettes (the scene about the snowy Christmas spent at a friends’ home in rural Virginia just made me feel warm and happy). And the sentences — again, my God, the sentences! As a Salter fan, would you say All That Is is representative of his other fiction?
RJS: That “My God, the sentences!” thing is pretty universal to Salter. Our fellow Rioter Jeff says his words feel inevitable, and I think that’s right on. The gorgeous writing, the evocative settings, the sex that is hot and vivid without being vulgar, are all Salter staples, so All That Is is representative in those ways. But each story does something different (which is a thing that I think separates Salter and makes him more interesting, at least to me, than Philip Roth), and they’re all worth reading. I haven’t made my way through his whole backlist yet, but I’m working on it, and I’m so glad to hear this one gave you the itch. And I totally agree — the asides in which Salter gives us a full picture of a minor character’s life in just a few pages are one of the highlights. They could be distracting in many other writers’ hands, but here they help us understand Bowman and his world more completely.
There’s so much to love in this book, but I just have to say that I adored it that Bowman worked in publishing. Few things are more delightful in fiction than a great passage about books and the reading life, and Salter’s take on it made my heart sing. Especially this: “He liked to read with the silence and the golden color of the whiskey as his companions. He liked food, people, talk, but reading was an inexhaustible pleasure. What the joys of music were to others, words on a page were to him.”
Any favorite passages you marked?
GZ: Yes! I actually tweeted the “inexhaustible pleasure” part of that passage you just quoted when I first read it. It made me so happy – one of those times when you feel like the author is talking directly to you. And here is another favorite: “It was love, the furnace into which everything is dropped.” I’m not sure what it is about that line, but I stopped and read it about four times, and it was one of those fantastic bookish moments where I felt like I’d been punched in the gut.
I loved that Bowman worked in publishing, too. I felt like the novel was maybe Salter’s subtle love letter to the publishing industry — dirty parts and all (he has that shady agent guy being the first one to make authors pay him to read manuscripts, etc.).
Can we talk about the title? (I know, I know…) But I especially like this one, and constantly thought about what it meant as I read. Here’s a stab: Life is a continuous cycle of love and loss, disappointment and tragedy, pleasure and pain. Those are all that is, and all we can do is make the best of them. Buying that?
RJS: I underlined that line about love being the furnace into which everything is dropped too. Just….gah. So good.
I am buying your theory about the title, and I’m buying it SO HARD. There’s nothing really unusual or strange or outwardly remarkable about these characters’ lives, and yet they are remarkable, because simply living is all you have to do to have all that is.
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