Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day Reading List: All That Is by James Salter

I began this Memorial Day weekend by reading the first chapter of All That Is, James Salter's first novel in 35 years, published last week by Knopf.  I bought the book on Saturday as an early birthday* gift to myself (today is, in fact, my birthday, and I baptized the morning by reading Chapter 2).  Even though I'm only 30 pages into it, I can already tell that this novel will be firmly stapled to my year-end "Best Books of 2013" list.

At the center of All That Is stands Phillip Bowman who, as the pages progress, we see as a young naval officer in World War Two, a Harvard student, then a book editor in mid-century Manhattan.  He lives, he loves, he advances toward death.  Nothing too remarkable plot-wise (at least so far), but the book's majestic magic is all in the telling.

James Salter is hardly a household name--even, sadly, in bookish households--but he's been quietly producing great works of literature since the late 1950s.  In his generous and spot-on review for the New York Times, Malcolm Jones writes:
Salter is 87, with a reputation so secure he has nothing left to prove. If there were a Mount Rushmore for writers, he’d be there already. He could have published nothing, and no one would have thought less of him.
And yet, here he is in the twilight of a career with what could arguably be his best book so far.  It is, I told my wife yesterday, full of language distilled down to pure, true sentences.

It is also a good book to start reading on Memorial Day, though All That Is is not, strictly speaking, a war book.  In fact, after the first chapter, the remainder of its pages are devoted to the post-war years, the time when America gathered her skirts in one hand and strode forth boldly into progress and optimism.  Salter's language is beautiful and breath-takingly confident.  How many writers do you know who can carry off describing the span and breadth of one person's life in the space of just one paragraph?  Seemingly minor character are given full, rich treatments in big, bold strokes--like this cameo portrait of Bowman's college roommate Malcolm Pearson:
After marriage, Malcolm did very little. Dressed like a bohemian of the 1920s in a loose overcoat, scarf, exercise pants, and an old fedora and carrying a thorn stick, he walked his collie on his place near Rhinebeck and pursued his own interests, largely confined to the history of the Middle Ages. He and Anthea had a daughter, Alix, to whom Bowman was godfather. She, too, was eccentric. She was silent as a child and later spoke with a kind of English accent. She lived at home with her parents, which they accepted as if it had always been intended, and never married. She wasn't even promiscuous, her father complained.
Chances are, we will never see Malcolm or his un-promiscuous daughter again in these pages, but Salter is like a strong, hard bell-clapper and the people described in this short paragraph toll, ring, resonate.

As does the novel's opening paragraphs--the real reason I'm bringing All That Is to you today.  I knew as soon as I read the first pages that I'd be posting these sentences here on Memorial Day.
      All night in darkness the water sped past.
      In tier on tier of iron bunks below deck, silent, six deep, lay hundreds of men, many face-up with their eyes still open though it was near morning. The lights were dimmed, the engines throbbing endlessly, the ventilators pulling in damp air, fifteen hundred men with their packs and weapons heavy enough to take them straight to the bottom, like an anvil dropped in the sea, part of a vast army sailing towards Okinawa, the great island that was just to the south of Japan. In truth, Okinawa was Japan, part of the homeland, strange and unknown. The war that had been going on for three and a half years was in its final act. In half an hour the first groups of men would file in for breakfast, standing as they ate, shoulder to shoulder, solemn, unspeaking. The ship was moving smoothly with faint sound. The steel of the hull creaked.
      The war in the Pacific was not like the rest of it. The distances alone were enormous. There was nothing but days on end of empty sea and strange names of places, a thousand miles between them. It had been a war of many islands, of prying them from the Japanese, one by one. Guadalcanal, which became a legend. The Solomons and the Slot. Tarawa, where the landing craft ran aground on reefs far from shore and the men were slaughtered in enemy fire dense as bees, the horror of the beaches, swollen bodies lolling in the surf, the nation’s sons, some of them beautiful.
"....some of them beautiful."  Wow.  I read that last sentence twice, thrice, four times just to savor the words and let them impact me.  They are, I think, completely apropos for this "holiday" weekend.

On this Memorial Day, it would be good and right for us to remember the battle-fallen, those shipped home in flag-blanketed coffins, those buried anonymously on foreign soil or in deep oceans, sunk like anvils.  Let us honor the brave ones, the timid ones, the privileged, the poor, the plain, the beautiful--all of them sacrificed in service to one cause or another.  Like many other writers who are also combat vets (Norman Mailer, Tim O'Brien, Karl Marlantes, among others), James Salter honors the war dead with his words.  Thank you, sir.

*50, in case anyone is sitting at home doing the math.

1 comment:

  1. It took me so long to read this book because I could sit and re-read paragraphs like the intro three or four times. He is just stunning.