With the big beasts of American literature – Bellow, Roth, Updike – moving on or in advanced years, there is a vacuum at the top end. Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggars, John Irving, Thomas Puncheon, Richard Ford, Anne Tyler, Jane Smiley enjoy both critical and popular acclaim. Another who has a rapt readership is James Salter and I read his novel All That Is recently. His reputation is based on an elegant writing style and pithy characterisation but opinion is divided on how good he is. For this reason he must be popular with book clubs.
The novel begins with a brilliant depiction of Philip Bowman whose life is charted involved in the naval attack on Okajima. For me for two reasons it does not maintain this auspicious start. The first is there is a bewildering presentation of characters. I calculated that there must be at least 25. The second flaw is the absence of plot line other than Bowman’s life story. The character comes but is not linked to anything other this Bowman’s life journey and then disappears.
Some, like his father in law, a patrician Washington farmer, are utterly credible – others like Bowman himself more elusive. I am sure I am not alone, when Beatrice comes along again, to have to remind myself she is Bowman’s mother and disapproved of his first marriage.
i also had problem with way he wrote about sex. This is notoriously difficult as it can descend into vulgarity. Updike, despire being a fervent Episcopalian, was rather good at this, Salter is not.
In this novel he also adopts a somewhat lofty cultural air which borders on the pretentious. I had to laugh out loud when he is extolling Greek culture and prays in aid the glorious voice of Nana Mouskouri. My memory of la Mouskouri goes back to Saturday nights on the sofa in the seventies with my first boyfriend, when he would rather stay in to grope me and watch Match of the Day than take me out and in the mediocre TV build up to the football we had to suffer the Greek chanteus .
I am an enormous fan of Tyler and Smiley but I have yet to read a contemporary American novelist to challenge the ‘big three’ and in this novel Salter does not.