Readers of All That Is may be disappointed to discover that James Salter’s latest novel is not quite, as its jacket claims, “an extraordinary literary event,“ but they shouldn’t be. Those of a more critical-minded disposition may even be wary of the accolades that inevitably surround the release of a Salter novel; after all, who wouldn’t be tempted to roll their eyes at yet another work detailing the exquisite malaise of the upper-ish class, philandering, white-American male? Eyes, however, ought not to roll at All That Is, for those privileges Salter’s characters possess are not the pillars that undergird the novel’s existence, but, though almost invisibly at first glance, the subjects of the novel itself. While Salter offers nothing more than the slipperiness of text to destabilize those mores, and while the novel more generally is a shockingly unostentatious one, its lack of flashiness or upheaval is a thing to be savored and contemplated, not condemned.

Salter, 87, has had his novels published since The Hunters, detailing his years as a USAF combat pilot, hit shelves in 1957. They have never sold well. In spite of a PEN/Faulkner Award in 1989 for Dusk and Other Stories, the critic James Walcott once called him “the most underrated underrated writer.” The New York Times has more charitably referred to him as “a writer’s writer,” and his prose is almost universally praised for lofty things like “maturity” and “acuity.” Salter seems destined for the literary eons, a true American artist whose heyday of appreciation will someday come.

But there is a danger in interpreting All That Is — along with the postwar golden years it describes — as somehow more pure, with its high-modernist highs still resonating as transcendentally “normal”: as some good ol’, normal novel. Though Salter might be the least likely American writer to be associated with the meta-fractals of postmodern literature, there is indeed something self-referential happening here. In a way, Salter’s characters themselves are grappling with the artificial sense of center and normalcy, of this being the pinnacle of “normal” human existence, that asserted itself in midcentury American culture, and their failures are not Salter’s, but a whole era’s — and are genuinely and beautifully understood by the author.

All That Is follows one Philip Bowman as he returns from the Pacific Theater and begins a career in book editing, not without a hint of naïve sentimentality. “It was a gentleman’s occupation,” Salter writes. “…The origin of silence and elegance of bookstores and the freshness of new pages.” Acquaintances are evaluated based on the contents of their mahogany-paneled bookshelves. “Geographies of publishing,” of a thriving, international intelligentsia, are spoken of. “Political writers” are casually referred to as the very most inferior species — tellingly so, in a novel whose characters are so lacking in any sense of agency or historicity that they seem incapable of even naming their ailment.

If that sounds like All That Is is to literature and publishing what Mad Men is to TV and advertising, it should, complete with the sex and glamour and unvoiced inequality. Bowman bonds with a co-worker via conversation about a secretary’s body (and midday drinks, albeit perhaps of a less extravagant variety than Madison Avenue might have afforded). He imagines, with a Don Draper-esque perverse suaveness, that upon someone discovering among his belongings a photograph of his illicit English romance, he “would without a word simply take it from their hand.” And though every new romance is described through Bowman’s endless capacity to imagine his life as finally, this time, sinking into flowery, peaceful stasis, I think I counted only two of the novel’s many characters that go through less than three divorces and speedy remarriages. All That Is also dredges up some of the codes of that era’s bourgeoisie, things as basic and understated as mentions of “society people,” which are alien and almost forgotten to this young reader. Salter produces these conversations organically enough to convince that this was, in fact, how people spoke about such things, and that somewhere in this mysterious thing called “time,” it all, somehow, really happened.

He is, to be sure, a spectacular writer. It sneaks up on, even produces in the reader a sort of reluctance to admit it. But even the novel’s strange, jarring paragraphs, like one on the very first page that quickly and seemingly randomly summarizes the fate of an Imperial Japanese battleship with an encyclopedic authority more typically associated with historical fiction, all eventually coalesce into the current of Salter’s elegant prose. Though Hemingway’s name frequently crops up alongside Salter’s, while the author of All That Is is no less masculine and incisive, he is far gentler, like a more expensive variety of bourbon. His novel has a marvelous, ominous lightness. Salter’s insights are simple but indirect, somehow neither profound nor shallow. They are like conversations amongst all those society people: immense passions and traumas hide behind words as elegant and generic as a black tie event. Many things are described only as “great,” and while this occasionally feels a bit like a cheap trick (“the great storefronts of New York,” “the great boulevards of Madrid,” “the great silences of Lake Erie,” and so on), it undeniably captures the intoxication and inertia of history viewed from the distance of memory.

In the end, All That Is definitely shares one quality with some mythical “normal novel” in that it isn’t possible to describe what it’s really about. The protagonist ages, learns, fails, remarries, and feels whole by lovemaking, feels fragmented when not. The narration slides, effortlessly, sometimes mid-paragraph, to another character or a future decade, and the effect is the polar opposite of the title’s grandiloquent claim. Although the novel’s ultimately inconsequential protagonist might never admit it, All That Is makes it clear that even its lengthiest episodes still represent only a minute fraction of all that is: bittersweet surfaces, gentle, quick plunges into the infinite depth of a person, a moment, an era.

What, then, to do with it? It is most certainly not “an extraordinary literary event” in any groundbreaking sense. And it exists too much as a period piece in terms of content, making it almost an anachronism in terms of form — and thereby can’t properly be situated in the emerging narrative of American literature’s return to realism. All That Is, is, then, a lot like one of the novels that its protagonist frequently enjoys: a readable, likeable, perhaps-forgettable novel, a novel that doesn’t transcend by its normalcy, but merely — and occasionally triumphantly — remains a novel. In our own era, when a desperate publishing industry seems to feel it must trumpet every new work of literary fiction as the next “extraordinary event,” this is, perhaps, a very good thing indeed.

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Featured image: “All That Is,” a novel by James Salter. Photo Credit: Alfred A. Knopf.