Picador, £18.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

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.

Get money off this book at the Independent bookshop

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)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones