Book review, March 30, 2013
If you contemplate the archetypical American guy, in all his macho, beer-swilling, gas-guzzling glory, and think there isn't much to say about the state of his soul, you should read the novels of James Salter. For more than 50 years, he has been investigating the inner life of Homo Americanus – his dreams, his poetry, even his metaphysics.
With one catch: Mr. Salter doesn't actually have any use for the average guy, the one who might work in an auto dealership and go to tailgate parties. He is obsessed with what we might call the Higher Guy. He writes about the hayseed who raises himself up to the elite, the cosmopolitan bon vivant hopping tables at a Manhattan cafe. His guys are film directors, mountain climbers, combat pilots. Their lives are adventurous in ways that few of us can imagine because Mr. Salter keeps confronting them with challenges to their machismo so profound that they make Hemingway look like a bumbler.
His first novel, "The Hunters" (1956), is a meditation on the nature of heroism. The setting is the Korean War. The lead character has all the intelligence, courage, moral character and skill required for an ace fighter pilot – except for one thing: He isn't lucky. Without this essential, imponderable gift, which can't be acquired through either talent or training, he can't gain the respect of his fellow pilots and, without that, how can he keep from self-destructing?
A dark issue indeed – that is, so long as you don't find something bogus about the whole rigmarole. Military aviation is tough enough without this rarefied metaphysical gamesmanship. But Mr. Salter's knack is to find the same crises in ordinary life. His best novel, "Light Years" (1975), is set worlds away from the existential dogfights of "The Hunters," but it's even more ethereal and sinister. It's about an upper-class marriage. His hero, Viri (in Latin "vir" roughly translates as "guy"), and his wife, Nedra, are comfortably well-off, with a beautiful house, a loving family and fascinating friends. But somehow, mysteriously and inexorably, as the light years of their marriage glide past, their happiness slips away from them.
Why? Maybe because there's something second-rate (a favorite notion in the Salter canon) about Viri and Nedra, an elusive sense that they're not entitled to the free ride they're getting. Or maybe the enameled perfection of their way of life is itself fundamentally inauthentic. Or maybe their real nemesis is more universal: It's Time the Destroyer, darkening their world as it does everyone's. Maybe Mr. Salter thinks the random dings and scratches and accidents of daily life ultimately inflict a kind of damage that can't be repaired. But he refuses to commit himself to any explanation – he is as reluctant to discuss his deepest feelings as any of his heroes. Instead he records the surfaces of Viri and Nedra's world in sentences like this: "It was that still, central hour of the day, slow, deliquescent, the invisible cigarette smoke mingled with the air, the peel of lemon beside the empty cups, the traffic in the avenue silent, floating past as if in death, women in their thirties, talking." The reticence lurking behind such exquisite, lilting, glinting prose makes "Light Years" read like a feature story in "Martha Stewart Living" that morphs into a latter-day Horatian ode.
Mr. Salter has now, at the age of 87, brought out "All That Is," a novel that isn't the relaxed valedictory exercise you might expect but a major work, as ambitious and challenging as "Light Years." It tells the story of Philip Bowman, first glimpsed in combat on Okinawa in 1945 and then followed through a long career in Manhattan publishing. It's a social history of the literary establishment, a portrait of Manhattan in its glam years and a surprisingly tough re-examination of American guyhood.
But it's also something of a mess. The text is distressingly rough. Hard to believe that the sublimely elegant author of "Light Years" would let a half-formed sentence like this slither out onto the page: "He had small, even teeth that made him seem friendly and worked in the government." If you can shake off the image of a federal office staffed by teeth, you run up against Mr. Salter's historical scene-setting, which is so lazy that it borders on the insolent: "Everything, during this time, was overshadowed by the war in Vietnam. The passions of the many against the war, especially the youth, were inflamed." There is also a continual clutter of gossip about real literary figures, much of it garbled or historically inaccurate: Characters discuss the plagiarism and ghostwriting scandals of the novelist Jerzy Kosinski more than a decade before they were discovered in the real world.
Worst of all is the haphazard structure – except that I think this might be deliberate. For long stretches, our hero is barely there. Scene after scene, chapter after chapter, Mr. Salter keeps ditching Philip for livelier subjects within his social circle – his mother's struggle with dementia, the philandering of his colleagues, the garish carousing of his celebrated stable of writers. Midway through, all that we really know about Philip is that he has got an eye for the ladies. But at least those moments flicker with the old radiance: "Sometimes there were publishing parties, the young women who longed to make a life of it in their black dresses and glowing faces, girls who lived in small apartments with clothes piled near the bed and the photos from the summer curling."
Still, it's hard to escape the conclusion that Philip is simply the standard boor. No matter what the ostensible subject, his mind keeps reverting helplessly to the one subject: babes. In the second half of the book, when he finally emerges to center stage, Philip marries and gets divorced. He acquires girlfriends, loses his assets to vindictive former lovers, gets revenge on them, chases new lovers. Pursuit and conquest turn out to be the only things in life that have the slightest interest for him, and he carries on at all times with the secret, unshakable certainty that he is a blameless innocent. Now and then he will pause to reflect on why a particular love affair went wrong, but he invariably draws a blank; the best he can do is fear that he might be too "trusting." Meanwhile he peppers his conversation with classic guy insights like: "All powerful women cause anxiety." To potential partners, he makes it plain that the quality he most values in a woman is an air of subservience.
This romantic career builds to a bloodcurdling climax. Philip gets a young woman stoned on hashish and climbs into bed with her. She keeps saying no and pushing him away, but he is "insistent" and "she became a partner in it, more or less." That "more or less" allows Philip to go on thinking of himself as a loving man and not a rapist. And so we sense at the novel's end that Philip will coast on through life, leaving a trail of emotional ruin behind, without suffering any serious repercussions.
George Bernard Shaw once observed that "Don Giovanni" is immoral not because the hero seduces a lot of women but because he is dragged off to Hell at the end. In the real world, guys like Philip Bowman do just fine, and the rest of us are stuck with the problem of living with them. Mr. Salter traces out his hero's career with a perfectly impassive poker face and leaves the reader to work out that what Philip thinks of as love is really an unholy mixture of lust, bafflement, fear, resentment and rage.
The result makes for unpleasant reading if you require the villain to be punished – or even if you just want some sort of explicit condemnation of him. But I find it fascinating that, toward the end of his long investigation of the American guy, Mr. Salter was willing to consider the possibility that he is really an unredeemable creep. There's a famous story of Sophocles, impotent at the age of 90, proclaiming his joy at being free at last from "a cruel and insane master." James Salter, three years shy of Sophocles, is hardly free yet, but he is beginning to rattle his chains.
This article appeared March 30, 2013, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal in print, and online at WSJ.com.
Lee reviewed: All That Is by James Salter (Knopf, 289 pages, $26.95)