Sexual fulfilment is a contentious arena, rife with insecurity, terror, need and an element of calculation. It is also the most difficult terrain in literature. The American writer James Salter has made sex his battlefield; his characters are not lovers but gladiators, and affection takes second place to performance. The men triumph, the women submit – although some of them, for whom sex is barter, are only pretending, and, confident of the power of sex, exploit it as their path towards a future.
Salter's sixth novel, All That Is , opens amid the turmoil of war as a US destroyer moves ever closer to Okinawa. "Day was rising, a pale Pacific dawn that had no real horizon with the tops of the early clouds gathering light. The sea was empty. Slowly the sun appeared, flooding across the water and turning it white." It is here, in the sinister lull before the scene explodes into action, that Salter introduces Philip Bowman, the antihero at the centre of a diffuse narrative that offers a series of snapshots of his life interspersed with episodic glimpses, often overly detailed, of other characters who periodically connect with him.
Salter writes of that morning before the attack that "it was a day Bowman would never forget". This proves prophetic, as the war remains the flickering image that burns away at the back of Bowman's mind. It is also the experience that shapes the book, most of which is lived out in a world still battered yet attempting to swagger, as are most of the characters. "In the mood of euphoria that was everywhere . . . it was still necessary to find a place for oneself." That sentence alone could sum up All That Is , which quickly develops into a quest that is invariably tied to sex, particularly for the blandly drawn Bowman.
He had been raised by his mother, his lawyer father having abandoned them for another woman. “Over the years, Beatrice Bowman acted as if her husband were merely away, as if he might come back to them, even after the divorce and his marriage to the Baltimore woman, which somehow seemed insubstantial though she had been eager to know what the woman who had taken him away from her looked like and finally saw a photograph that was in a Baltimore newspaper.”
Throughout his life, and the novel, Bowman recalls his years spent with his mother. It is she, not the various women with whom he engages in the carnal marathons that dominate Salter’s fiction, who emerges as the prevailing presence. She is indomitable to the end. Waiting for death in her hospital bed, she says: “I can’t seem to do things, I don’t know why. When you die . . . what do you think happens to you?” She answers her own question: “I think that whatever you believe will happen is what happens.”
Salter manages to be both languid and urgent, his icy, all-seeing vision shifting between the exact and the random. He describes scenes, a gesture, a moment, with forensic intensity, then quickly moves elsewhere, like a lion snatching a nap in the shade. Fame came to him with his third novel, A Sport and a Pastime (1967), a book no one would publish until George Plimpton gambled on it in the Paris Review . The problem had been not the prose but the erotic content, an affair relentlessly imagined by a lonely, voyeuristic narrator who, privy to the bare facts, allows his mind to run rampant. A spoilt young Yale dropout lures a French shop girl away from her boyfriend, and the pair set off on a journey through France in a borrowed car. It is Lolita (1955), but without Nabokov's despairing humour and humanity. It is also more chilling than Patricia Highsmith's masterful psychological thriller, The Talented Mr Ripley (1955), and shares the menace of Paul Bowles's The Sheltering Sky (1949).
Dean, the dropout, though bored by the French girl, is obsessed with her body, which she believes is her passport to life in the United States. A Sport and a Pastime is a novel that contains much to admire in its control and precision yet little to like. It is, however, Salter's hymn to France, revealing that, although he is influenced by Hemingway, he is far more sophisticated and cool, almost cerebral, in his exploration of sex.
Light Years (1975), an exploration of a dying marriage, remains his finest novel.
Vulnerability is not a trait on which Salter tends to linger. His weak, needy women, desperate for love or even a man, are portrayed as pathetic, while the sex goddesses, of which there are many, ply their gifts and gamble. Bowman is sexually inexperienced when he meets up with Vivian, a daughter of a southern father who has raised his two daughters to ride horses and survive the legacy of a banished alcoholic mother. Bowman’s relationship with Vivian races from sexual exhilaration to marriage to rejection within a few pages, even without her knowing of his infidelity. Ironically, a rare memorable scene sees Vivian grabbing a rake to probe the undergrowth in pursuit of a snake that may endanger her dogs. The snake might well be a choice metaphor for the entire narrative.
Salter's fiction is at times overwhelmed by the endless descriptions of women's bodies and references to male members. There is scant profound insight, and All That Is also suffers from being reminiscent of Salter's superior memoir, Burning the Days (1997), in which his impressionistic story-within-a-story approach is far more effective.
This is galling when one considers Salter's wonderful collections Dusk and Other Stories (1990) and Last Night (2005), which includes among its 10 outstanding stories Eyes of the Stars . In this, a late-starter actor in his early 40s is given the task of meeting an aging diva who has flown in from New York. She decides to ignore the invitation offered by the producer, herself once an unlikely lust object and a proven survivor. Salter brilliantly balances the producer's memories with the conversation in the car between the actor and the sniping actress as they drive out into the darkness. As she attempts to provoke him, Salter diverts the action beautifully: "There was a moth on the windshield . . . They were going forty miles an hour; its wings were quivering in what must have been a titanic wind as it resisted being borne into the night. Still, stubbornly, it clung, like gray ash but thick and trembling."
Considering that Salter, a consummate short-story writer, can evoke a character in a couple of lines, it is surprising that Bowman never acquires depth. Because his essence is not his career as a book editor but his sexual journey he is doomed to be, at least to this generation of readers, a variation of Don Draper in Mad Men . When Bowman first meets the improbable Christine he is smitten, as usual. She is returning from Greece, and it is impossible not to think of her as a marauding Helen of Troy. Her treachery is shocking, but it is nothing like as vile or predictable as Bowman's revenge. In time, Bowman becomes a magnet for the women who have not slept with him to admit that they wish they had. Yet, through all the sex, he remains a barely visible presence, just like Draper, who at least is haunted by his past, unlike Bowman.
It is not surprising that Salter wanders between his cast of characters, a pen portrait there, a personal disaster here, such as when one of Bowman’s work colleagues loses his wife and child in a train fire. This novel, with its faint glimmers of John Cheever’s Yankee candour, possesses the improvisational ambience of a play, or of the film that Robert Altman would have made had he lived to option it.
A plain woman has to make a career; the beautiful ones just need a bed and Bowman. This in a novel in which Kennedy’s assassination has one sentence and the president is not even named. Bowman, resting after a lengthy tryst with Enid, his English mistress, reflects that she “had given him the feeling of utter supremacy”. Is that what sex does? Elsewhere, Bowman meets a former female colleague and pronounces silently: “She was the age when she could still be naked.”
Yes, this superficial novel is easy to read; it even becomes a challenge to find the plot beneath the sex. There is some fine writing, majestic sentences that describe the light or catch a response. Salter is capable of a simmering, near-biblical intensity. That is to be expected: he was a fighter pilot and defied the heavens.
But All That Is does not do justice to Salter's art. His casual daring here does not achieve cohesion or empathy. Hailed as a master – which indeed he is, as the author of The Hunters (1957), Cassada (1961) and, as already mentioned, A Sport and a Pastime , Light Years and Burning the Days – he lacks the brash vulnerability of Philip Roth or the all-seeing humanity of Richard Ford. But, above all, Salter's cool panache never approaches the urbane, sympathetic and incontestably erudite genius of John Updike.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent.