Saturday, December 12, 2015

All That Is

Having read James Salter’s Light Years I was eager to read his last work, one that was written and published only two years before his death at the age of 90.  Why does a person nearing the end of his life take one last plunge into writing a novel after such a long absence (the previous one was written more than 30 years earlier)?  

That is immediately answered in the epigraph preceding the half title page:  “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.”  Salter has important things to say about that “dream,” and thus this novel.

Light Years is poetic whereas All That Is is more episodic, covering the events of the entire adult life of Philip Bowman, a naval officer in WW II, Harvard educated.  He takes a circuitous route to becoming one of the leading editors in a well-known New York City literary publishing house, one that could be a veiled version of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The novel contains a number of publishing references that are familiar to me, particularly the London and Frankfurt Bookfairs and ABA in Chicago.  So reminiscence was an added layer of meaning while reading this tale.  Alan Bennett’s quote from The History Boys resonates:  “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you.  Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead.  And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”

The novel opens during WWII. Bowman is a navigator aboard a destroyer in the Pacific.  The man he most admires is his bunkmate, Kimmel, who is known for his sexual exploits.  Bowman is completely inexperienced with women.  During a ferocious kamikaze battle, Kimmel jumped into the water during the attack, abandoning ship as he was convinced the ship’s magazine would blow, only to be picked up by another destroyer that was then almost immediately sunk.  “Kimmel ended up in a naval hospital.  He became a kind of legend.  He’d jump off his ship by mistake and in one day had seen more action than the rest of them would see in the entire war.  Afterwards, Bowman lost track of him.”

I make a point of this as the life Bowman imagined of Kimmel, he eventually tries to create for himself, seeking sexual experience (first through a totally inappropriate marriage to a wealthy and inexperienced young women from a wealthy Virginia family, a marriage which rapidly ends in divorce) and then through what constitutes a slowly revolving door of sexual partners.  These women were all well educated, some married, attracted to Bowman no doubt as he matured into a New York City sophisticate, well connected to artists and writers in particular, the names of which are dropped freely throughout the novel.

Yet, there is the strong theme of Bowman leading essentially a solitary life populated by the activities of his profession and his dalliances.  A couple of these relationships become quite serious, even leading to the thought of a second marriage.  One in particular seems to be heading right there until it explodes into deception and even more startling in the context of this tale, revenge.  It is the only moment in the novel that truly takes the reader by surprise.

It reminds me in many ways of Stoner by John Williams, although that is a much darker tale. There is a sense of “aloneness” in each novel.  These men have their work, work they love, but relationships break down or are fleeting.  Each protagonist marries only once. 

Bowman and Stoner move in different circles, Bowman’s world being the well-traveled, the affluent and sophisticated.  Salter’s characters move in and out of the novel not unlike life itself where acquaintances reappear in the most unlikely places or at the most unlikely times. 

Two such characters (and there are scores of such minor players) in the novel are Neil Eddins, “the other editor,…a southerner, smooth faced and mannerly, who wore striped shirts and made friends easily,” and Charles Delovet a literary agent.  Salter describes a meeting between Eddins and Delovet, and the description is typical of Salter’s prose and the kind of people he writes about:  “In the city one day Eddins had lunch at the Century Club, in the distinguished surroundings of portraits and books, with a successful literary agent named Charles Delovet, who was well-dressed and walked with a slight limp said to be from a ski accident.  One of his shoes had a thick heel though it was not obvious.  Delovet was a man of style and attractive to women.  He had some major clients, Noel Coward, it was rumored, and also a yacht in Westport on which he gave parties in the summer.  In his office he had a ceramic ashtray from the Folies Bergere with a dancer's long legs in relief and, imprinted around the rim: Pour plaisir aux femmes, ca coute cher-women are expensive.  He'd been an editor at one time and he liked writers, loved them, in fact.  He rarely met a writer he didn't like or who didn't have some quality he liked. But there were a few.  He hated plagiarists.”

Salter’s prose – as was the case of Light Years – can be lyrical, evocative, and nostalgic, such as this description of Bowman going to see his ailing mother, leaving New York City by train:  “Bowman came by train, looking out at the haze of the Jersey meadows, marshes really.  He had a deep memory of these meadows, they seemed a part of his blood like the lone gray silhouette of the Empire State Building on the horizon, floating as in a dream.  He knew the route, beginning with the desolate rivers and inlets dark with the years.  Like some ancient industrial skeleton, the Pulaski Skyway rose in the distance and looped across the waters.  Nearer, in a rush, blank factories of brick with broken windows went past.  Then there was Newark, the grim, lost city of Philip Roth, and churches with trees growing from the base of neglected spires.  Endless quiet streets of houses, asylums, schools, all of an emptiness it seemed, intermixed with bland suburban happiness and wholesome names, Maplewood, Brick Church.  The great, smooth golf courses with immaculate greens.  He was of it, from it, and as he rode, unconnected to it.”  I know those sites too, but it takes a special writer to connect the reader to the feelings (“as if a hand has come out and taken yours”).

Salter takes the opportunity to opine on literature’s place in contemporary culture (or lack of place to be more precise) and the decline of publishing (something I felt very acutely at the end my own career):  “The power of the novel in the nation’s culture had weakened.  It had happened gradually.  It was something everyone recognized and ignored.  All went on exactly as before, that was the beauty of it.  The glory had faded but fresh faces kept appearing, wanting to be part of it, to be in publishing which had retained a suggestion of elegance like a pair of beautiful, bone-shined shoes owned by a bankrupt man.  Those who had been in it for some years….were like nails driven long ago into a tree that then grew around them.  They were part of it by now, embedded.” 

The novel’s dialogue is as first-rate as the narrative (he has a good eye and ear for detail), so natural, and sometimes going on for pages.  I will not quote it here, but, as I suspected, Kimmel comes back into the novel, almost like a coda and that dialogue between he and Bowman is as good as it gets.  Real people.  And at times the novel reaches the level of eroticism, unusual for a man of his age, but remembering the “beauty of fire from the beauty of embers.” [John Masefield] 

At the conclusion all things come together, the sea, a woman, a future, even an amusing expression of vanity, shocked by his own aging appearance:  “He had been weeding in the garden that afternoon and looked down to see, beneath his tennis shorts, a pair of legs that seemed to belong to an older man.  He mustn’t he realized, be going around the house in shorts like that….he had to be careful about such things.”

And finally thoughts about death, not too far removed from those anyone his age (or mine) might have:  “He had always seen it as the dark river and the long lines of those waiting for the boatman, waiting in resignation and the patience that eternity required, stripped of all but a single, last possession, a ring, a photograph, or letter that represented everything dearest and forever left behind that they somehow hoped, it being so small, they would be able to take with them.  What if there should be no river but only the endless lines of unknown people, people absolutely without hope, as there had been in the war?  He would be made to join them, to wait forever.  He wondered then, as he often did, how much of life remained for him.  He was certain of only one thing, whatever was to come was the same for everyone who had ever lived.  He would be going where they all had gone and-it was difficult to believe-all he had known would go with him, the war, the butler pouring coffee…names, houses, the sea, all he had known and things he had never known but were there nevertheless, things of his time, all the years, the great liners with their invincible glamour readying to sail, the band playing as they were backed away, the green water widening… and the small boats streaming, following behind.  The first voice he ever knew, his mother's, was beyond memory, but he could recall the bliss of being close to her as a child.  He could remember his first schoolmates, the names of everyone, the classrooms, the teachers, the details of his own room at home-the life beyond reckoning, the life that had been opened to him and that he had owned.”

Essentially this is a work of closure, a statement that life passes quickly and before one knows it there is little to the future and the past cannot be undone.  Yet in his inherent aloneness, Bowman’s life is one of content.