All That Is

All That Is

by James Salter. New York: Knopf, 2013Image

I don’t remember where I read an advertisement blurb for James Salter’s new book, All That Is – maybe at the Jewish Book Council site? Maybe at the Forward? – and my google searches for it are now proving fruitless. But I’d never heard of Salter until I read a review of his most recent book, and I’ll admit I was a bit surprised he had been off my radar until now. The author of several books with Jewish themes, he’s also won a PEN/Faulkner and a PEN/Malamud.

All that Is does not seem to be explicitly about Judaism or Jewish characters. It is actually a sort of plotless novel (I think), following the arc of Philip Bowman’s life from his time leaving the Navy at the end of WWII through his career in the publishing world of New York from the 1950’s through the 1970’s. And in that way, it is implicitly about Judaism and Jewish characters. Bowman himself is not Jewish – his background is Italian – but his love of literature and ideas, and his observations about class and society, necessitate a lot of Jewish references.

For example, Bowman goes to work for a small publishing house headed by a man named Baum, who has a wife named Diana: “Diana Baum was an important influence on her husband though she very seldom appeared at the offices. She devoted herself to their child…and to literary criticism, writing a column for a small, liberal magazine, influential beyond its numbers, and she was a figure as a result.” Much later in the book Salter adds to his description of Diana that she “had grown up…on a diet of politics and current events in an apartment at the outer limit of respectability…her father had a small textile important business…from the time she was eight years old she read the Times every day, the four of them did, including the editorial page…”To this description I would just say:

As for Baum himself, “the family was Jewish and German and felt a kind of superiority. The city was filled with Jews, many of them poor on the Lower East Side and in the boroughs, but everywhere they were in their own world somewhat excluded from the greater one. Baum had known the experience of being an outsider and more at boarding school, where, despite his open nature, he made few friends.”

The theme of outsiders and social acceptability or class takes up most of the first half of the book, in an intriguing way. Bowman begins dating a girl named Vivian who is nice and pretty but “doesn’t read” as Bowman regretfully tells another woman later in the book. Bowman’s experiences visiting Vivian’s family home (well, one of the family homes) in Virginia, and the cold reception he gets from her father, echo the quote about Baum being an outsider. When Bowman meets Vivian’s father, George Amussen, for lunch to ask about marrying her, Salter provides Amussen’s internal monologue: “Amussen knew what the young man was there for, and in his mind he had laid out the salient points of his response…One of the chief and unaddressed dangers society faced, he believed, was mongrelization, free interbreeding that could in the end have only dire results…” Amussen does not give his blessing, but says that he “won’t stand in Vivian’s way,” so the two have  a wedding. Amussen, so seemingly proper about social class lines and morals in this sense, is shocking unscrupulous elsewhere, such as having sex with his daughter’s best friend who is visiting before the wedding.

The marriage is doomed from the start. At the aforementioned lunch, Amussen warns Bowman that Vivian might not “take to city life. She’s not one of those people…from the time she was just a little thing, she’s had her own horse.” If the Virginia WASPS have their horses, Bowman and his Jewish publishing friends have their books. Dinner party discussions at the Baums’ are about the latest book from the author Aronsky, who has written an account of a man who was supposedly one of Hitler’s high-ranking henchmen but secretly had been Jewish. After that dinner and the scintillating debate about this book, Bowman is exhilarated. In an ironic turn of thought, Bowman realizes that as much as Baum has been excluded from various parts of society, Bowman wants nothing more to belong to Baum’s world: “Dinner at the Baums’. It was admittance into their life, to some degree, into a world he admired.” Vivian, on the other hand, is less than impressed, and instead of sharing his exuberance, “she turned and kissed him briefly, as if dismissing him. She was suddenly like a stranger.”  So that’s the end of Vivian and Bowman.

The next 200 pages or so were a bit disappointing to me. I was intrigued by Salter’s portrayal of this culturally Jewish publishing world of the 50’s and 60’s, but that thread goes on the back burner while Salter’s search for love in all the wrong places takes the front. He is with several women who seem only vaguely interested in marriage and family, and more interested just in having a man around to date and, in one case, to basically bankrupt through a trick mortgage deal. There are a few brief sections that involve Bowman’s trips to England to visit a woman and to network with a prominent British (and likely Jewish) publisher named Bernard Wiberg. I would have loved to hear more about this Wiberg, but unfortunately he stays in the background.

In contrast to Bowman, who is unable to find or create a stable relationship, his publishing buddy Neil Eddins’ marriage testifies to the magic and beauty of real love. Eddins meets a divorcee named Dena, who has a young son from her first marriage, and falls in love not only with Dena herself but with her son and the family life that they create. When Dena and Leon are killed in a tragic train accident (sorry, I don’t know how else to get to reveal this quote) Eddins “…almost broke into tears over his loneliness and what he had lost. He saw them now for what they were and had been, the great days of love. She had given her love so completely, her great smile, her lighthearted foolishness. I love you so much-who could say that with the overwhelming truth of countless acts of love behind it? He hadn’t don’t all he should have, he should have given more. I would give it now, he thought, and he said it aloud, I would so much give it!” And, simultaneously, “Bowman had the other. Without a wife or girlfriend he had seemed settled into a single life, of habit…”

In the last fourth of the book, Salter picks up the outsider/Jewish theme again, initially with a few fun references to Saul Bellow and Susan Sontag. But then Bowman runs into an old publishing acquaintance, remarried to an Algerian Jewish woman. When they encounter each other at a restaurant and chat, “Bowman was more and more conscious of not being one of them, of being an outsider. They were a people, they somehow recognized and understood one another, even as strangers. They carried it in their blood, a thing you could not know…Baum was not religious and did not believe in a God who killed or let live according to an unknowable design…in his [Baum’s] deepest feelings, however, he accepted that he was one of his people and the God they believed in would always be his as well.” Bowman’s sense of being an outsider in regard to Jewish people is fascinating. Probably, the very people Bowman wishes to be part of, this bookish Jewish crowd, had in many ways to create an insular club simply because they were excluded from so many other societal realms. And yet here is a man, Bowman, who feels as though he, the Italian, the non-Jew, is the outsider to them! Bowman sees how this status change is not just for him, that perhaps Jews in New York and the intellectual world have become more accepted by all: “It was no longer women of an Eastern European swarm…it was now women who were glamorous and smart as in nineteenth-century Vienna…they were stylish, ambitious, at the center of things…their lives had warmth and no scorn of pleasure or material things. He might have married one and become part of that world, slowly being accepted into it like a convert…on the other hand, he could not really imagine it. He would never have belonged.”

I only wish that this had been more of the book, instead of the middle third all about Bowman’s successions of empty relationships, including a Humbert Humbert style episode in which he sleeps with the adolescent daughter of his ex-lover. The conversations that Bowman has with each woman, and the descriptions of their time together, are terse and sparse.. Perhaps this style is meant to convey the “heaviness” of their silence, or the things unsaid, or something, but to me it just seems awkward and unnecessarily fraught with neurosis and uncommunicativeness. But then, that might be showing just how much Bowman really is a part of the bookish Jewish/New York “intellectual” culture after all…

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