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)

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor