Book Review: 'All That Is'

Critic Alan Cheuse reviews the new novel All That Is by James Salter.

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At the beginning of his new novel, James Salter writes: There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real. The novel is Salter's first in over 30 years. It's called "All That Is." And our reviewer Alan Cheuse says it is the best novel he's read in a long time.

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: "All That Is," the novel is Salter's version of a contemporary American "War and Peace," with the war, World War II, in this instance, coming first. Day was rising, we hear in the opening pages. 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. A lieutenant JG named Bowman had come on deck and was standing at the railing looking out.

And so we meet Philip Bowman, Manhattan-born. After the immediate post-war years as a Harvard student and then after taking a job with a publishing company in his native city, Bowman meets a beautiful woman from horse country Virginia at a bar in New York and falls hard for her. They marry. I was stricken, he describes this years later. I was blinded by it. I didn't know anything.

Of course, neither did she. Bowman rises to the level of great expertise in the publishing world, even as his marriage dies a slow death. His attempts to find love seemed solid always at first and then shattered. While working for a time in London, unhappy and still searching, he carries on a ferocious affair with the wife of an older English businessman with astonishing sentences describing their lovemaking.

Later, back in New York City, a divorced Bowman falls in love with a woman named Christine. Her husband lives abroad and she's raising an adolescent girl. Bowman commences an affair that gives the feel of a sturdy marriage with him working during the week in the city and commuting on weekends to a house on Long Island that he's bought for them.

When Christine betrays him with a local contractor, the pain this makes in Bowman's life goads him to rise to the level of Shakespearian revenge. Reading and re-reading all this, I found myself in a state that Salter's work as with the finest writers we know often induces. You breathe deeply and your pulse races. The sentences, the scenes, the life, the life.

SIEGEL: Alan Cheuse with his review of James Salter's new novel, "All That Is."

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