Sunday, April 21, 2013

Salter's ALL THAT IS

I've spoken before on this blog about the novelist and short story writer, James Salter, in the Gallery of Heroes. Any book by Salter is for me an occasion, an event, an opportunity to celebrate. 

Salter's life has a dramatic shape. Beginning, almost by accident, with attendance at West Point, and a 12-year-long career as an Air Force pilot (seeing action in Korea), during which he managed to complete two published novels based on his service experience, he abruptly switched direction, resigning his commission, and starting a new career in the motion picture business which lasted over a decade. (His first published novel, The Hunters [1957], had been adapted by Hollywood.) This included script work, and even an independently directed film (Three, 1969). During which period, he managed to complete his first substantial book, A Sport and a Pastime (1967), before finally abandoning Hollywood altogether. Since then, his production has continued sporadically, with two short collections of stories, and two more novels (Light Years, 1975 and Solo Faces, 1979). That last work had an interesting germination. Working on the script of Downhill Racer (1969), the idea of writing a similar treatment for Redford led to a parallel narrative of a mountain climber. Since that book appeared, Salter had produced some travel journalism, and an autobiographical memoir (Burning the Days, 1997) but nothing substantial. 

Salter in middle age

Now, after a fallow period of about 25 years, his sixth novel appears. 

Not sure of what to expect, I responded to the advance publicity with some excitement, and read the book straight through, something I rarely do, especially with a writer whose prose I enjoy savoring, like Salter. It may be that this is Salter's "easiest" book, the prose flows effortlessly, and there is less density. It is in many ways, the most traditional of his novels, less poetic, more straightforward story-telling--more event, less impressionistic description--more accessible to the average reader. 

It may be that when you tire of a writer whom you've always loved before, it's something in yourself that has changed. A Sport and a Pastime is without doubt a young man's book. Though Salter was 42 when it was published, it seems the romanticization of a much younger sensibility. Many of the same kinds of themes that he first explored in A Sport were continued in the next two novels, and which reappear here again in the new work.  

Above all, Salter writes from a man's point of view. All the women in his books are beautiful, it seems, and the affairs they have are often, if not usually, with older men. Heterosexual calisthenics is celebrated with uninhibited gusto in his fiction, so that the more of his work you read, the more likely you are to feel that this is an aspect of his character, rather than the testing of limits. Sex is among the most difficult things to write effectively about, and Salter has mastered it. But what always made his work interesting to me was its style, the effortlessly deft metaphors, the shrewd pacing, the triple-edged ironies, and its majestic sadness--as elegant as a crumbling French chateau. But in the end, you realize that what makes great stories isn't the detail, the graceful sentences, the "attitude" of an omniscient narrator laying out scenes; it's the ability to make powerful actions, turns and dilemmas in the lives of characters we are persuaded to care about.           

Contemporary photo

In Salter's new novel, we trace the life of Philip Bowman, a WWII veteran who finds a life in the New York publishing world. This is clearly a world that Salter knows with some intimacy, though the interior concerns of editing and making books isn't his focus here. It's merely a platform for accessing the upper-middle class world of the rich, New York culture, European cities, and the beautiful and seductive (and available) women who people it. (One could say, too, that one meets here rather the same kinds of people one finds in the fiction of Marquand, Auchincloss or even O'Hara, though their versions are always less poetic, and they'd probably not credit the romance that Salter sees in them.) Here, for the first time, Salter traces a single life end to end, and for the first time we see him addressing the implications of a life devoted to the selfish dissolutions of those who live for pleasure, for the transitory indulgence. Too, we begin to see an underlying distrust of women which was probably always present in his work, though disguised by the lavish charm of its surface. This is a novel of some 300 pages, and at the end, after a life of failed relationships with a series of fascinating women, we feel, with the narrator, that Bowman's life has been a tragedy. 

In A Sport and a Pastime, the central character, a young American, pursues a French girl through an erotic tour of France. We never learn much of either one of these people, who seem like stand-ins for our vicarious curiosity. It's much the same in Solo Faces, we're seeing life through the eyes of a young, intense man with a single-minded devotion to a physical test. 

In All That Is, the saga begins during the end of WWII, as the Navy steams towards Okinawa and the final great battle in the Pacific. But we aren't concerned with Bowman's war experiences, only what will happen to him in the future. Almost by accident, he falls into the publishing business, and begins the first of a series of intense relationships, a marriage to a self-involved blonde patrician ingenue from the prosperous horse-farm country of Virginia, which ends in a mutual loss of interest. As the decades pass, Bowman encounters one after another of these ravishing women, each of whom seems, at the time, to offer the ultimate fulfillment. By the end of the book, all these relationships have come to nought. Unlike the earlier narratives, in All That Is we trace the hero's whole life, eventually at the threshold of old age, with the ultimate foe, death. In the earlier books, the male testing has an heroic quality, a challenge that each protagonist meets with confidence and aplomb. In All That Is, there are no such rigorous tests, only the ineluctable progress of failed encounters. Peripheral characters curve into the orbit of Bowman's existence, but they're so fleeting, and typical, that we hardly remember them. They're types of people, the kind the narrator dismisses as symbols or clich├ęs of a certain class of privilege and presumption. 

Against the backdrop of Salter's previous efforts, here the routine of seduction, conquest and aftermath begins to seem wearying, and stale; by extending the scope of the mythic quest into later life, we're deprived of the luxury of romanticizing the physical, sensual thrall of the male hero's pursuit of ecstatic self-realization. Which may indeed be the secret trope. By the end of the book, we've become accustomed to the let-down, and as each new affair begins, we sense a skepticism, a slim hairline fissure that will eventually develop into separation. Am I wrong in sensing a whiff of misogyny here? At one point, having been jilted by one of his flames, cheated out of a house he paid for, Bowman later ruthlessly seduces her daughter, then leaves the girl (who must be less than half his age) alone and penniless in a Paris hotel room--a finely honed revenge. Even as we see him do this, we watch in disbelief as he glories in her beauty, her vulnerability, her trust. 

For me, that episode lies at the heart of the book's meaning. In the context of the post-War American excess of wealth and privilege, and the over-riding presumption of power (and the aura of potency) with which Salter always seems to be preoccupied, there is a self-delusion which is almost unconscious. Authors get to choose their characters, good or bad, but reading Salter's fictional narratives is like being inside a body that has little self-consciousness. Other figures, especially women, after an initial flurry of interest, seem hardly to matter. For all the deft touches which I always appreciated in his work before, I must admit that his characterizations lack a certain solidity. We sense life's richness, its fatal attractions, its deep undercurrent of sadness and waste. And there is always a dramatic awestruck aftermath of astonishment--after beautiful scenes, after sex, after the triumph of a physical excitement. But beyond that, there is only jealousy, envy, contempt, pity--that the world doesn't live up to its billing, to the protagonist's exalted expectations. Salter's heroes demand a lot of the world, and though they may be courageous, honorable, and attractive, they don't possess staying-power. And that's the message of All That Is: That a life devoted to the hedonistic model ultimately leads to dissolution and decay. 

In a short note preceding the text, Salter writes this--

There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real. 

What this means in the context of Salter's career as a writer is that, as he approaches the end, what endures is the record he has created (through his work), rather than any of the fleeting (though endlessly seductive) moments of a long life. All That Is addresses the riddle of mortality, of that fulcrum which balances the attractions of pleasure and indulgence, against the probable benefits of an enduring legacy. Salter set himself a high standard as a writer, but in the end, as E.B. White once said, "each of us who puts pen to paper writes of himself"; or, as the poet Charles Olson said, "people don't change; they only stand more revealed." The young boy of A Sport and a Pastime has grown up, has grown old. As he looks back over his life, the sexual conquests, the physical testing, the panoramic tapestry of the passage of time through the world laid end to end, is studied, and surmised. The verdict is ambivalent, as it must be. None of us can be completely sure of what it all has meant. Was it all a dream? If we could re-write the story, one more time, could we make it all come out right? Or would that be simply another story, another version of the great journey?    

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