All That Is by James Salter, Knopf, 289 pages ($26.95). James Salter has been cursed with the tag “writer’s writer” so long that it makes perfectly good sense that readers not curious about literature’s inner life would avoid him. It’s almost always so. Richard Yates – whose books Salter’s vaguely resemble – was long dead before anyone seriously thought of making his best novel “Revolutionary Road” into a movie. And when they finally did, such audiences as it had took note of the performances and left Yates the writer imprisoned inside the insularity of the affections of his fellow fictioneers.
There is, in fact, a good reason why at the age of 88 – the same age as William H. Gass, whose new novel “Middle C” was reviewed last week in these pages – Salter’s exquisitely written newest novel “All That Is” is likely to suffer the same fate as Yates’. Though an almost exact contemporary of Gass, Roth, Pynchon and Updike, he writes like a contemporary of Styron and Mailer, determined to keep the torch of Ernest Hemingway ablaze in American prose (and not in a Raymond Carver or Richard Ford way either).
His book gives vividly rendered scenes aboard ship in World War II, the publishing business when it was presumed a business of “gentlemen” and the lives of the sexes in an era and nearby milieu to what television has turned into “Mad Men.” The big difference is that Salter’s new novel, unlike “Mad Men,” is not secretly about the emergence of entirely new gender understandings. It is an unabashedly anachronistic exploration of gender misunderstandings that might have received sympathetic vibrations from Richard Yates.
He writes like what he is, a former career soldier confident of the allure of a clean shave to the opposite sex. A sample paragraph, picked virtually at random from the book’s conclusion: “The temperature of the water was perfect. They swam together for fifteen or twenty minutes and then came out to lie in the sun. There was little wind, the day was going to be hot. They lay with their heads not far apart. Once, she opened her eyes, saw him and closed them again. Finally, both of them sat up. The sun felt heavy on their shoulders.” Writers, in 2013, know a perfect 1954 paragraph when they read one.
– Jeff Simon