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All That Is, By James Salter

At 87, this maverick master of American fiction comes up with a strange, rule-busting marvel.

Some writers come up with one novel and then call it a day. Others write from their twenties into their seventies with the best works usually coming somewhere in between. James Salter is a far more unusual case. Based directly on his experience as a fighter pilot in the Korean War (and how many novelists can claim that on their CV?), his first novel, The Hunters, is undoubtedly the finest.

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There followed several others, the best known of which - partly for its squirm-inducing sex scenes - is probably A Sport and a Pastime. Now at an age, 87, when, if people are writing at all, we tend to view the results with dog-on-its-hind-legs indulgence, Salter has produced a strange masterpiece, a novel that seems a summing-up of much that he groped towards in his long middle period. So, a career bookended (unless he's now on a very late roll!) by two excellent novels, with work of variable quality in between.

All That Is begins aboard a ship just before the American invasion of Okinawa in 1945. It's a combination of tight close-ups of several characters and rather clunky historical scene-setting ("kamikaze - the word meant 'divine wind'") about the "great" battle about to get underway. The word great - as in "Okinawa, the great island", or Midway, "the first great carrier battle" - crops up four times in the first page and a half. An unconscious declaration of intent and ambition or - and this is another peculiarity of the Salter case – a sign of gaucherie? Praised by peers for his sentences, Salter can seem, until you give yourself over to his distinctive rhythms, a tad awkward.

The battle begins, we're caught up in the action and then - another weirdness - one of the two characters we've zoomed in on disappears overboard, and we don't see him again until much later, for the briefest of cameos. The novel will trace the life of the other sailor, Phil Bowman, as it unfolds over the course of the next several decades. "If he had known when he was fifteen how completely women would colour his life," writes Annie Dillard of one of the men in her novel The Maytrees, "he would have jumped ship." Bowman, by contrast, would have signed up for life.

He goes to Harvard, moves to New York, lands a job in publishing. In a bar he meets a beautiful woman from a rich family who live amid the "steeplechase hills" of Virginia. As Bowman falls under her spell, so we glide into the long trance of Salter's narrative. It's the 1940s, remember, when people's exposure to the almost-religious mysteries of sex was pretty much dependent on having it (the situation now is almost entirely reversed).

The erotic bliss recorded in these pages will be a main theme, not just of this phase of Bowman's life and marriage, but of the book as a whole. Much later, by which time Bowman is divorced and involved with a Greek woman, he will realise that "everything he had wanted to be, she was offering him. She had been given to him as a blessing, a proof of God."

Bowman's romantic comings and goings are always stitched into the social fabric of the times, sometimes elliptically evoked, sometimes in Okinawa-style capsule summary. In 1963 he goes on vacation with an Englishwoman he met on a publishing trip to London (where he was struck by "the proud, outdated character of the city"). Note the date, and bear in mind the sexually disastrous goings-on in Ian McEwan's Chesil Beach at the time!

Granted "a life superior to its tasks" by his work in publishing, Bowman finds himself increasingly at home in that industry's version of glamour. Set in a not dissimilar milieu, an earlier novel, Light Years, chronicled its characters' lives over an extended period of time but the centre struggled, as a result, to hold. For a while Bowman feels the absence "of a tangible centre in life around which things could form", but the new novel suffers no such misgivings: entire relationships are boiled down to a few gestures, to changes of light and weather, to vividly remembered scraps of dialogue.

David Copperfield opens with the narrator unsure whether he will be the central character in his own life. All That Is deals with the central or defining moments in Bowman's life. During these times he is or is not a central character in the lives of others.

A recurring preoccupation of Salter's, this. Even the pilots flying solo combat missions in Korea or the climber in Solo Faces are claimed by - and depend upon - shared ideas of honour and the lure of romance. A less heroic solitary, Bowman is engaged, nevertheless, in a similar wager: reconciled to dinners and evenings alone as preludes to "the first word, the first look, the first embrace" and the attendant surge of lyrical renewal. "He woke in the early light. It was strangely silent, the waves had stopped breaking. A long vein of green lay in the sea." The woman next to him as he wakes up - whom he would like to marry - betrays him utterly. He has no regrets though there follows a somewhat disturbing sexual episode which might be construed as vengeance (in a chapter entitled "Forgiveness"!).

All That Is is like a map of an individual's dream-time. The peculiarity of such a map is that its borders are so porous as to be, at times, invisible. Characters come and go, their stories become incidentally entwined. A publishing friend of Bowman's meets a woman and we drift into their world, as though the book is briefly theirs. At one point the middle-aged Bowman goes into a bookstore in Manhattan and we get the story of the bookseller's life and marriage: because it's a store Bowman is fond of.

Creative writing courses emphasise the importance of point-of- view and p.o.v. characters. Salter, to revert to the imagery of the opening scene, blows much of that stuff out of the water. Mastery, eventually, is an indifference to how things are meant to be done. Or, as Salter himself says of Francis Bacon, he never "tried to conform to any idea of the artist, which allowed him to become a greater one". Exactly.

Geoff Dyer's most recent book is 'Zona' (Canongate)

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