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James Salter returns with an erotic portrait of a failing marriage

Writer James Salter poses in his Bridgehampton, N.Y., home on March 30, 2005.

Ed Betz/Associated Press

All That Is
James Salter

The young men starting out in life after the Second World War in James Salter's new novel All That Is are a particular kind of horny. It is the horniness that occurs when men are young and free and more or less virginal. Salter alludes to a coarseness among these young men, a hunger that makes them blunt and raw when they joke about sex, when they appraise young women who are strangers, guess at proclivities, fantasize and intuit how a woman will look and behave during the sexual act.

Women sometimes seem to exist as a provocation to these men, every innocent and unself-conscious gesture a knowing taunt. There is little speculation about what any of these women think, or who they are beneath their skins. As one young man says of a passing girl, he doesn't want to know her, he wants to have sex with her.

Throughout the novel, there is the sense that all people, men and women alike, work out who they quintessentially are through action and gesture, touch and smell and voice, storms of emotion. And yet Salter's main protagonist, retired naval officer Phillip Bowman, is also a reader, an editor of books who works in a publishing house. He is both a raw sensualist and cultured man in love with the written word.

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All That Is follows Phillip Bowman through a marriage that fails, his subsequent search for love, an appreciation of art and all the vivid, intoxicating crystalline moments that make up a life.

Salter himself is an exacting writer, each image and moment of dialogue crafted and authentic. While his body of work has been widely admired, he is something of a writers' writer. All That Is is his first novel in 34 years, since 1979's Solo Faces. (He has published much short fiction and memoir in the intervening years.) He is now 87 years old. I was just a few pages in when I was struck by the great luck I felt to have it in my hands; I have been very influenced by his work, especially his previous novels A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years.

Most stylistically remarkable about Salter's All That Is are the frequent and elegant shifts in point of view. The overarching narrator strays indiscriminately into the thoughts of characters who play large roles in Bowman's life, as well as those he barely knows and the acquaintances he simply brushes up against at parties for no more than an hour or two. Some of these characters float through for only two or three pages and are never seen again, though concise and thorough backstories are provided, and their piercing moments of revelation or heartbreak are illuminated.

These minor characters are as fully present as Salter's protagonist, Bowman, and there is a kind of democracy in this lack of discrimination that runs counter to the traditional shape of a novel, where a well-developed character usually plays a pivotal role in the plot, or at least reappears for the sake of thematic unity.

It is a lack of discrimination that mirrors Bowman's heart, or at least that other important organ: He is led from lover to lover because of a woman's idiosyncratic beauty, her cheekbones, the gap in her teeth, a beautifully shaped nose, buttocks like fresh bread from a bakery, the way a woman wears her clothes, the way the wind whips through her blonde hair.

And falling in love, throughout Salter's writing, is almost always a vertiginous fall, wholly consuming, genuine and just as quickly over and done with when someone new comes along. What matters here is what is felt, and felt deeply. It is difficult to guess if lust is prioritized over love, or if they are, for Salter, indistinguishable.

The moral compunction at stake is the drive to experience life, to be at attention when things are happening, like a soldier called to duty. There is an imperative to recognize the power of passion, however ephemeral it may be, and to honour it.

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Almost every Salter review mentions that he is a writer known for his sentences. But what does that mean? Perhaps that the very structure of the Salter sentence – often fragments, often very short, plain-spoken yet lyrical, more Hemingway than Faulkner but with the sensuality of Duras or Colette – can alter the meaning of a scene, or even the meaning of a character's life.

This attention to the structure of the sentence means that the reader is drawn to revelation alongside the characters. She moves toward a truth or a moment of dazzling beauty at the same time as the narrator. The reader is not given an idea, or an explanation; she is asked to feel, basically, all that is. Impressions are passed to the reader – or leap – unmediated. An impression differs from an idea, it might be argued, because an impression has immediacy, and is delivered through the senses – it is somewhat violent in nature in that it disturbs or awakens. Salter's writing is a record of the intensity, often sexual, that the reader will later form into her own ideas.

The ideas that come are queries into the nature of pleasure, the difference between lust and love, the myth-making that goes along with both. There are ideas about power between the sexes, inequality, racism and war, and the role power plays in the forming of desire.

Take for instance the disturbing description of an ongoing sexual relationship between a 17-year-old black housemaid and her much older white Virginian employer. The employer goes through a ritual, two or three times a week for years, of having the young woman lie on her front on his bed, and he places silver coins down her back, and across her shoulders like a crucifix, before penetrating her from behind.

The scene is disturbing because is aestheticized. It is coyly brief. The reader is first titillated and therefore complicit. The young maid comes back to the employer even after he no longer compels her to do so. The tremendous power imbalance and systemic racism at work is revealed in its complexity.

Salter's characters are sometimes rich and beautiful and uncultured, and their racism and sexism is casual and fiercely cruel. There is almost always the question of wealth and class, as opposed to the power of those culturally enriched.

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Predominantly Salter is an erotic writer – a writer who eroticizes weather and light, men and women both, nature, architecture and food, good manners, and the fragility of beauty. Sometimes the female characters are knowable only through their physical beauty, and this is an obvious downfall in an otherwise deft and complex rendering of character, especially since loving women is an overriding theme throughout his work.

If there is fidelity in Salter's novels, it is a fidelity to the idea of being true to desire and beauty. This is a fidelity maintained over a lifetime of remarkably beautiful writing.

Lisa Moore's book February won the 2013 Canada Reads competition. Her new novel Caught will be published in June.

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