For James Salter, sex and love are noble conquests. But as with fighting MiG planes in the Korean War in his novel The Hunters or scaling the French Alps in Solo Faces, the thrill of the chase only temporarily supplants the inevitable disillusionment that follows once you’ve gotten what you thought you wanted.
Mr. Salter, then, portrays marriage as the hopeless attempt to rid oneself of loneliness. The slow and painful disintegration of Viri and Nedra Berland’s marriage in his 1975 novel Light Years is enough to forewarn any soul foolish enough to desire matrimony.
Such is the education of Philip Bowman, the romantic World War II veteran in Mr. Salter’s superb new book All That Is. Bowman’s longing for a cheerful domestic life gets him through the war, but back in civilian life, he grows increasingly disillusioned with each affair. As he learns from Enid Armour, a married woman whom he meets at a vulgar Halloween party in London (dressed as a buccaneer), marriage is nothing more than a tired routine of one spouse preventing the other from being unfaithful.
“He would be looking for another woman, and I would be trying to prevent it,” Enid tells Bowman of her marriage to a philanderer. “It’s boring.”
In Bowman, Mr. Salter introduces a kind of compendium of his other fictional heroes—passionate, deeply scarred and, at least initially, bound by a restless naiveté. Mr. Salter, who is 87, portrays love as a series of fleeting vignettes, sometimes entailing fierce bouts of lovemaking in faraway European cities, often ending before they even begin.
Bowman is introduced as a diligent junior-grade lieutenant on a battleship in the Pacific whose inexperience in love must be kept from the bravado of his crewmates. Aboard the ship is really the closest he comes to a relationship that feels everlasting. The military guarantees structure and adventure. Women, not so much.
“His life was the ship and his duties aboard,” Mr. Salter writes of Bowman. Belonging to the navy gave him “a pride he would never lose.”
To leave the military is to start life from scratch, something that Mr. Salter, an Air Force pilot who flew over 100 missions during the Korean War, experienced himself when he resigned from the military to pursue a writing career in 1957. He compared the experience to walking to his own death in his memoir Burning the Days.
World War II ends, Bowman leaves the military and enrolls in Harvard. He graduates, first venturing into journalism before landing a job at a boutique publishing firm that satiates his romantic notions.
“[P]ublishing was a different kind of business, it was a gentleman’s occupation, the origin of silence and elegance of bookstores and the freshness of pages,” Mr. Salter writes.
At a St. Patrick’s Day party he meets Vivian, a pretty Virginia girl who swiftly deflowers him. The experience leaves Bowman feeling inspired, and Vivian indifferent.
“He saw himself tumbled with her among the bedclothes and fragrance of married life … the pale hair where her legs met, the sexual riches that would be there forever.” Vivian fails to see such poetry in their relationship. They marry, of course, and Bowman sees “life ahead in regular terms, with someone who would be beside him.”
When Vivian asks for a divorce in a casual “Dearest Phillip” letter, Bowman sets out on a sequence of flings with dissatisfied housewives who see in him little more than convenience. Mr. Salter’s women are far from the cold vixens of Hemingway or the lascivious objects found in Henry Miller, the author’s major forebears; they are simply too smart for Bowman’s childlike idealism. As one female character tells another toward the end of the book, “never give men your best … they come to expect it.”
Seeking solace, Bowman begins an affair with another married woman, Christine. It starts innocently enough—in a cab they share from the airport into the city. Gradually, they become domesticated. Sex to Mr. Salter is a kind of disavowal of every affair that happened before. We see Bowman making observations about Christine that are eerily similar to those he had made of the other women in his life, his new woman fitting conveniently into his conception of himself: “He was lying with a smooth-limbed woman who had been stolen from her husband. She was now his, they were in life together. He was thrilled by it. It fit his character, the daring lover, something he knew he was not.”
The relationship ends unexpectedly. Bowman and Christine get into a bitter legal dispute over a property they shared in Bridgehampton. She prevails, and Bowman is left wondering if he would have been better off not sharing that cab with her when they first met. (“[But] what sense did that make?” Mr. Salter writes. “It had been the luckiest day of his life.”)
Bowman soothes his pain from his separation from Christine by courting her 20-year-old daughter Anet. He seduces her by smoking hash with her in his flat, then takes her to Paris.
“I’m leaving,” he says in his note to Anet the morning after. “I can’t bother now to explain. It was very nice.” The note seems petty, Bowman stooping to the level of his ex-wife’s written request for a divorce, but it is as if Bowman has finally learned his lesson, abandoned his chimerical notions of adulthood. Sometimes, a fling is just a fling—not a grand and blossoming love. Coming to terms with this disappointment is part of the dues one must pay in a life well-lived.
“He’d been married once, wholeheartedly, and been mistaken,” Mr. Salter writes of Bowman in his twilight years. “He had fallen wildly in love with a woman in London, and somehow faded away. As if by fate one night in the most romantic encounter of his life he had met a woman and been betrayed.”
“He believed in love–all his life he had–but now it was likely too late.”