Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 1, 2013

All That Is, by James Salter #BookReview

All That IsThere’s been a fair bit of hype about this book, but I was underwhelmed by it.  James Salter is apparently a Big Deal in the US, but I’d never heard of him, probably because All That Is is his first novel since 1979.   Now that I have heard of him, and have plodded through his tiresome novel, I am wondering what all the fuss is about.

This is the blurb:

From his experiences as a naval officer in battles off Okinawa during World War II, Philip Bowman returns to America and finds a position as a book editor. He soon inhabits a world where marriages fail as affairs ignite, alcohol reigns, writers struggle, and publishers hustle. It is a world in which to immerse himself, a world of intimate connections and surprising triumphs. But the deal that Philip cannot seem to close is love: one marriage goes bad; another fails to happen; and, finally, he meets a woman who enthrals, then betrays him, setting him on a course he could never have imagined for himself. Written with Salter’s signature economy of prose, All That Is fiercely, fluidly explores a life unfolding in a world on the brink of change: a dazzling, sometimes devastating labyrinth of love and ambition, of the small shocks and grand pleasures of being alive.

All That Is is a sweeping, seductive love story set in post-World War II America that tells of one man’s great passions and regrets over the course of his lifetime and draws together the great themes of Salter’s writing: warfare, love, sex and marriage, and what it means to write.

Hmm.   IMO this novel is self-indulgent, sexist, and boring.  The only bits that were remotely interesting were the parts where the reader can play guess which book the publisher is describing.   But, heavens above, what kind of bloke gives a woman he hardly knows a copy of Forever Amber?   Subtle as a sledgehammer…

I don’t mind it having very little plot. I was prepared to tolerate a number of vignettes about some characters which went nowhere at all.  But I was baffled when I read in one of the reviews below that this author ‘can write’.  What on earth does this mean?  Of course Salter can write, there’s nearly 300 pages of it.  But was there one page where I paused to savour an image, an idea, or an insightful bit of characterisation? Nope. Not one.   What the blurb calls ‘economy of prose’ I call a pedestrian paucity.  (Yes, I have read Hemingway.  Lots of Hemingway.  IMO Hemingway is the only author who can get away with writing like Hemingway).  People who think that Salter ‘can write’ ought to read more widely, starting with this year’s Miles Franklin winner Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser (see my review).  Now, that’s an author who ‘can write’ well, write stylishly, write sensitively, write intelligently and write with purpose and insight!

I did pause, with a sharp intake of breath, each time I came across another of Salter’s inane portrayals of women.  I was soon very tired of the way that the central character classifies women by their breasts, ‘associating’ low ones ‘with privilege’ and noting that one of his fellow-characters chooses women with bigger ones each time he marries.  Gretchen the secretary is defined by her acne and patronised from one end of the office to the other, but this doesn’t stop Bowman from interpreting as salacious her explanation that the Russian word bolshoi as in Bolshoi Ballet means ‘big’.  Honestly, are there really adult males who think in this adolescent way in the 21st century, presuming that every woman they meet is preoccupied by the size of male appendages?   If there are such sad specimens still around, my advice to them is that they ought to do us all a favour and refrain from writing novels …

The sex scenes are irksome.  How nice to know that after the act, this man lies there savouring his triumph, though I suppose most women won’t be all that surprised, given his self-delusions about relationships.  But the scene with his step-daughter is repellent, especially when we find out what his purpose was.

Oh, I can’t be bothered spending any more time on rubbishing this abject waste of paper, time and money.  I’d much rather read another book.

By all means check out other opinions.  I found two, but both of them seem to hint at disappointment as well.  Check out James Lasdun at The Guardian and also  James Meek at the LRB, part of whose review I’ll quote here because it expresses some of what I feel:

For all its myriad perspectives, and the occasional feeling that what Salter is doing in All That Is is knitting together a set of short stories, there is disappointment in the unbalanced power and success of its central character, Bowman. He experiences setbacks and reversals but there is a sense of his life as a series of loves and sexual conquests which, by the end of the novel, seem repetitive. The mood of a story about a powerful, attractive man living a life of tasteful elegance and seductions becomes what Salter’s work risked being earlier but never was, boastful: boastful not in an autobiographical sense, but in the sense of a smug character, and disappointing because of the skill with which he erodes his characters’ Ozymandian tendencies elsewhere.

Author: James Salter
Title: All That Is
Publisher: Picador, 2013
ISBN: 9781447238263
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh


Fishpond: All That is


  1. Interesting. I didn’t finish it because I found it boring and self-indulgent and laboured, but adored his earlier work ‘A Sport and a Pastime’ (written late ’60s, set in the ’50s).

    • Hi Jenny, that’s very interesting. Why did that one work for you?

      • It had a different perspective, a less egocentric one? The POV character is looking into the action from outside and observing another couple’s affair. It is filled with yearning, is erotic but tender, and has a strong sense of nostalgia, so all things that appeal to me (not necessarily the erotic element, I usually *don’t* like sex in fiction much). Plus it was a slender volume so it was not an onerous read and it was lean, no fat. Quite lovely. Also just today I came across an essay/review Salter wrote on a Hemingway bio (Hemingway’s Boat) that I saw via James Bradley’s twitter); it’s a gorgeous piece and helps that I loved the bio too. So mixed feelings about old James Salter but I don’t think I” ever get back to All That Is. I was disappointed after loving the other one.

        • Maybe, maybe, I should give this author another go?
          But only from the library, not using my hard-earned cash – just in case LOL!

          • I think that the earlier work is lovely, you might not. But to me it’s the beauty of literature and different reader responses. The book is fixed but for each reader it’s actually not. It becomes a different book through the individual reading experience. And I also think we can individually have a different experience of one book depending on our moods, life situation, age, level of happiness or whatever. I feel I may have read some books and judged them harshly, or softly, depending on the above factors. Wow. Deep. Also you are so prolific with your reviews. Are these in real-time or do you have a stash somewhere ready-written? I’m impressed!

            • *chuckle* Almost always real time, Jenny. I very occasionally write the review but have to schedule it for later on, e.g. when there’s a date embargo e.g. Chris Womersley’s new one which I am dying to tell you about but not allowed to yet (except maybe to say that I liked it. A lot). But usually I have a backlog of books for review and since I try to read them in the order I receive them, I only have this problem when the book has leapt out of its rightful place and demanded to be read immediately LOL.
              I always plan to have a stash organised for when I go away on holidays but I am not self-disciplined enough. The whole point of blogging for me is to talk about the books, and I want to do that as soon as I’ve finished reading!

              • If you are going to Chris’s CAIRO launch in Fitz next week, see you there! You wear the badge at all booky things?

                • Alas, I won’t be at that one. I tend not to go out to things during the week these days … *mutter* must be getting old, I guess…

  2. I totally agree with your opinion, Lisa – we read it in one of my reading groups and the only male in the group loved it. Another woman and I really disliked the overtly sexist tone. One woman very much enjoyed it, the other was on the fence (that’s the whole group). I think I rated it a 6 because some of the writing was okay, but that’s getting about as low as I’ll go and actually finish a book. Here’s my review:

    • LOL ‘musical relationships amongst disposable people’ and ‘daydreams of old men’ – you have nailed it in 9 words!

  3. the hype put me off oh and the fact its not translated ,I agree with thought a earlier book may be one to try I like sound of some of them more than this one ,all the best stu

    • Good point, Stu. How can it be that there are so many really great books in translation that barely get a mention and something as ordinary as this gets celebrity status in the media?

  4. I was worried as I read your review that my own review was the one that said Salter “can write” — as much as I shared your frustration with this novel, I do feel that he can write. Although, having now read a number of his books, I also find that impressions of them tend to evaporate a few weeks after reading.

    I suspect you are close to hitting the nail on the head with your references to Hemingway and sexism — every generation in the U.S. seems to have an author who fits that characterization. And some of them are not very memorable at all.

    • That’s a great conversation about this book at your blog, Kevin. I’m like DGR, I put it aside twice before finally slogging through it, and I wouldn’t have persisted if it hadn’t been a book group choice.

  5. I came close to reading this novel a couple of times, and now I’m happy I didn’t. I loved your line ‘Of course Salter can write, there’s nearly 300 pages of it.’

    • I wonder, I wonder, would this have been published if it hadn’t had The Great Name attached to it?

  6. Lisa, I love the way you don’t hold back. When a book falls short you give it both barrels. Salter’s book had been on my TBR list – it has now been removed. Life’s too short for bad books

  7. Thank you, thank you, Lisa.
    For plodding through it, so the rest of us won’t have to.
    I hope you have something exciting and tasteful next on your list so your reading of this book will soon fade into oblivion.

    • I have. I’m reading Ways of Dying , by Zakes Mda – and it is just wonderful. I’ll have to be careful not to gush when I write the review.

  8. I have to agree with Karenlee!! I originally had this book on hold at the library but I read so many negative reviews I cancelled my hold. Your review just confirms the fact that this a book I will enjoy not reading.

    • I suspect that most of Salter’s fans aren’t women. As I read his characterisation of arrogant, ignorant, sexist Eddins (a colleague at the publishing house) I found myself thinking that Salter was leading up to some kind of ironic contrast with Bowman (the central character). But no, he wasn’t…

  9. I have just read Phillip Roth for the first time for a book group. That might not seem relevant but I really think it is. There is an aura around this generation of American male writers who if not dead are now in their eighties.

    They can write, yes – but they have monstrous egos. They seem obsessed with WWII and women’s breasts – not necessarily in that order. I haven’t read James Salter so I realise that what I’m saying is based on your your review and the feeling I had while reading Roth of complete exclusion on the behalf of women from the world that he inhabits. The book was The Human Stain and yes, I was bedazzled by his writing at first – and the story – until, by the last 50 pages I just thought “enough! get over yourselves!” about all the characters – every single one that emanated from the giant sexist brain of Phillip Roth.
    I read your review after reading this article from Vanity Fair in which Salter features – these men walked comfortably through a very chauvinistic world after they served or observed WWII. Times have changed – thank goodness.

    • Hello Margaret, well, that article in VF is indeed interesting – all that male bonding must have had an effect, yes!

  10. On Roth, I read Portnoy’s Complaint as a young woman in my early 20s, if not late teens. I loved it, thought it hilarious. Haven’t read since and I wonder how I would view it now.

  11. I wish I had read Roth before now and will be interested when our book group meets to hear other thoughts. It’s the narrator’s view of the characters that I became fed up with towards the end as ‘the big secret’ (which we already knew) was revealed but I wouldn’t dispute that Roth IS a literary genius and I want to read American Pastoral.

    James Salter however, I think I will give him a miss thanks to Lisa’s review and these comments. Because as the song goes “It’s a man’s world” in these writers minds.

  12. That was a funny read about the Portnoy talking book Lisa – thanks, enjoyed it. Went to my group to discuss The Human Stain – everyone was in awe at the way Roth has eight or more well developed characters that are fully dimensional, sometimes annoying, but believable and interesting, multi stranded plot and big ideas about the american dream, race, individualism, religion and family all of which are underpinned by his big obsession – sex. We all – two men and five women unanimously think he’s great.

  13. That seems as if I have swung to the other side of the pendulum in my opinion but he’s a provocative writer – you can object to him at the same time as admiring him.

    • I agree, Margaret. I think the difference with Roth is (at least in the books I’ve read) he does actually have something to say.

  14. Salter was reviewed in The New York Times Book Review and, I think, The New Yorker. Apparent he was a fighter pilot during the Korean War and wrote a book about it which received acclaim. There were more biographical details than comments about his recent books, so your comment is noteworthy.

    • Hi Ken, yes I think you’re right, I read something somewhere about him drawing on his own war time experiences to write this book – though it’s not a very big part of it.

  15. I stumbled upon your review on Goodreads right on time: I was thinking exactly the same thing as you and I thought I’d better abandon it right away.
    So thanks for saving me a few hours of reading.

    I find it bland on every aspect: plot, characterisation, sense of place. Nothing to write home about.

  16. […] I stumbled upon Lisa’s review of All That Is on Goodreads and discovered that she hated it for the same reasons I couldn’t engage with it. Her […]

  17. Hi Emma, your reaction prompted me to check out Goodreads too, and I was struck by something interesting: it’s a 4-star book there but my friends and the people whose reviews I follow at GR were underwhelmed by it and gave it one star or two. Just shows you what a discerning lot we are, eh?

  18. I think it’s a very male book. I read it back in 2013 and found it to be – per my blog:

    Boring. One Amazon reader said “Salter is often mentioned in the breath just after American masters like Philip Roth, John Updike, and Norman Mailer.” Well no wonder – it’s all about boy meets girl, lays girl, perhaps marries girl, divorces girl, finds another girl – musical relationships amongst disposable people. I truly didn’t care what Salter could dig up from his past (real or imagined) to dwell on. I think I’ll call this genre male romance -“Everything he had wanted to be, she was offering him” – the daydreams of old-man writers like Roth and McEwan and Updike and too many others.


    • Yes, I think you’re right. We tend to think of cowboy stories as the male equivalent of Barbara Cartland romances, but no, the blokes have got a more pervasive romance genre of their own, and they market it as great literature.

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