First Reads
6:04 pm
Wed March 20, 2013

Exclusive First Read: 'All That Is' By James Salter

Originally published on Tue March 19, 2013 8:09 am

  • Listen to the Excerpt

James Salter is often called a writer's writer. His novels – including his first, The Hunters (1957), and the erotic A Sport and a Pastime (1967) — are much admired but have won only modest audiences. Salter has written screenplays (Downhill Racer) memoirs and stories; All That Is, which comes out April 2nd, will be his first novel in 30 years (or 13 years if you count Cassada, which was a rewrite of an earlier book). Of his writing style, Salter told The Paris Review, "I'm a frotteur, someone who likes to rub words in his hand, to turn them around and feel them, to wonder if that really is the best word possible." And indeed, Salter's deceptively simple prose in All That Is feels rubbed smooth. His sentences flow one to the next with a limpid inevitability that carries us along. The book tells the story of Philip Bowman, who comes home from WWII and drifts into the world of New York publishing. It's a novel filled with drinking and conversation that comes most to life as Bowman falls in and out of a series of romantic liaisons. This exclusive selection, from the chapter titled "Christine," records the start of one such romance.


ADVISORY: This excerpt contains adult content that some readers may find offensive.


17

CHRISTINE

Bowman had been in London for the Book Fair, and his homeward flight had been delayed. He landed in New York at nine in the evening. It was half an hour before he had his bags and went out to get a cab. There was a crowd, he had to share a cab with someone also going to the West Side, a woman with three or four pieces of luggage. She moved her legs to give him more room. She was sitting back in what might have been a coat with the sleeves lying as if open. They rode in silence. Bowman was prepared to keep to himself without looking at her again. In the city, strange women were not always as they appeared. There were women with grievances, disturbed women, women avidly seeking men.

As they came to the expressway, she said,

"Where are you coming from?"

It was the way she said it. She almost seemed to know him.

"London," he said, looking at her more closely for the first time. "And you?"

"From Athens."

"That's a long flight," he commented.

"They're all long. I don't like to fly. I'm always afraid the plane is going to crash."

"I don't think you have to be afraid of crashing. It's quick. It's all over in a second."

"It's what happens before that, when you know you're about to crash."

"I suppose so, but how would you prefer to die?"

"Some other way," she said.

In the light from oncoming cars he could see her dark hair and lipstick that made him take her for Greek. The expressway paralleled Manhattan, which was like a long necklace of light across the river. At the far end was the financial district and then, from midtown on up, the countless tall buildings, the great boxes of light. It was like a dream, trying to imagine it all, the windows and entire floors that never went dark, the world you wanted to be in.

"Do you live in Athens?" he asked.

"No," she said easily, "I was taking my daughter to visit her father."

"I've never been to Greece."

"That's a pity. It's a marvelous country. When you go, go to the islands."

"Any one in particular?"

"There are so many," she said.

"Yes."

"There are places that time seems never to have touched, absolutely unspoiled."

They looked at one another without speaking. He did not know what she might be seeing. She had clear, smooth features.

"The people have something you don't find here," she said. "They have a joy of life."

"That's nonsense," he said.

She ignored it.

"Were you in London on business?"

"Yes, business. The London Book Fair."

"Are you a publisher?"

"Not really. I'm an editor. A publisher has different responsibilities."

"What sort of books do you edit?"

"Mainly novels," he said.

"The friend I'm staying with was in a novel. She's rather proud of it. Eve was her name in the book. That's not her name."

"Which book is that?"

"You know, I forget the title. I only read the parts about her. She knew the author. So, tell me your name," she said after a pause.

Her own name was Christine, Christine Vassilaros. She was not Greek, she was married to a Greek man, a businessman, from whom she had separated. Her friend, Kennedy, the one who'd been written about, was also separated and living in a rent-controlled apartment that was a grand relic of life before the two World Wars and the time between them. I'm not giving up the apartment, she had said. It was like an apartment in Havana, bygone and only sparsely furnished, on Eighty-Fifth Street.

They arrived at Bowman's street first. He handed her something more than half the fare.

"It was very nice of you to share the cab," he said. "Can I call you sometime?" he straightforwardly asked.

She wrote down a telephone number on the back of an airline stub.

"Here," she said.

And she pressed it in his hand.

As the cab left, he had an exalted feeling. The taillights going down the street, bearing her away. It had been like theater, a glorious first act. The doorman greeted him.

"Good evening, sir."

"Yes, good evening."

I've met the most wonderful woman, he wanted to say. He had met her by chance. He thought about it excitedly while going upstairs, and then in the apartment. She was married, she had said, but that was understandable — at a certain point in life, it seemed everyone was. At a certain point also you began to feel that you knew everyone, there was no one new, and you were going to spend the rest of your life among familiar people, women especially. It was not that she had been friendly, it was that but more. He felt like trying the telephone number, but that was foolish. She wouldn't have even arrived at her street yet. He was already impatient. He must somehow not seem it.

When she came to lunch a day later, he knew it was all in vain. She was younger than he thought, but he could not be sure. They sat facing one another. She had the neck of a woman of twenty, and her face had only the faintest lines from expressions, from her smile. There was almost a physical thrill to her. He didn't want to succumb to it, but he was unable to prevent it, her bare neck and arms. She was certainly aware of it. Don't become intoxicated, she seemed to say. He could look at her so closely. Her gleaming dark hair. Her upper lip was arched. She held her fork with a kind of languor as if ready to discard it, but she ate with generous mouthfuls as she talked, not diverted from the food. Her other hand was raised and half-closed, as if drying her nails. Long, disdainful fingers. It turned out she had lived in New York, on Waverly Place, she and her husband, for a number of years.

"Six," she said. She had worked as a broker.

He was looking at her. You wanted to watch her.

"It was beautiful," she said. "That's a nice part of the city."

"You know New York then," he said feeling jealous.

"Very well."

She didn't say much more or much about her husband. His business was in Athens, that was all. They'd been living in Europe.

"In Athens?"

"But we're separated."

"Are you still on good terms?"

"Well ... "

"Intimate terms?" he found himself asking. She smiled.

"Hardly," she said.

He felt he could say anything to her, tell her anything. There was a kind of complicity, even if nascent, between them.

"How old is your daughter?" he asked.

She was fifteen. He was astonished to hear that.

"Fifteen! You don't look as if you could have a fifteen-year-old daughter," he said and added casually, "how old are you?"

She made a slight, disapproving expression.

"Thirty-two?"

"I was born during the war," she said. "Not at the beginning of it," she added.

He was aware of his own age, but she didn't bother to ask it. Her daughter's name was Anet.

"How is that spelled?" he said.

It was a beautiful name.

"She's a marvelous girl. I'm mad about her," she said.

"Well, your daughter ... "

"It's not just that. Do you have children?"

"No," he said.

He almost felt he'd fallen short in her eyes. He was visibly older, he was single, he had no family.

"But that's a very nice name," he repeated. "Some names are like magic. Unforgettable."

"That's true."

"Vronsky," he said as an example.

"Not a very good name for a girl."

"No, of course not. Unforgettable, but not good."

"I'd almost have another child just to name it. If you were to have a child, what would you name it?" she asked.

"That's something I've never really thought about. If it was a boy ... "

"Yes," she said. "A boy."

"If it was a boy, Agamemnon."

"Ah. Yes," she said. "Of course. Achilles is a good name, too. Agamemnon sounds a little more like a horse."

"He'd be a wonderful boy," Bowman argued.

"I'm sure he'd be. With that name he'd have to be. And what would you name a girl? I'm almost afraid to ask."

"A girl? Quisqueya," he said.

"I see you're a traditionalist. What was that name, again?"

"Quisqueya."

"It must be some figure in history or a novel."

"It's a Peruvian name."

"Peruvian? Really?"

"No, I made that up," he confessed.

"Anyway, it goes very well with Bowman."

"Quisqueya Bowman," he said. "Well, let's just keep it in mind."

"And her sister, Vronsky."

"Yes."

All right, become intoxicated. It was always from the first word, the first look, the first embrace, the first fatal dance. It was there waiting. Christine, I know you, he thought. She was smiling at him.

He had to tell someone afterwards, he had to say it, it was simply bursting from him. He said it to the doorman,

"I've met the most wonderful woman!"

"Oh, yeah? Good for you, Phil."

He'd never called him by his first name before although they sometimes chatted. His name was Victor.

You'll meet her, Bowman felt like saying but realized how man-about-town it sounded, and also he did not know if it would happen. He might have regretted saying anything, but he hadn't been able to help it. The apartment looked bright, welcoming. It was her presence, her initial presence, in his life.

They went to a dinner party given by a husband and wife who published art books, a branch of publishing all to itself, art books and also large-format books on architecture and even more particular subjects, hotels of the Amazon, things like that. Jorge and Felice Arceneaux, it was she who had the money. There were eight at the table, including a young French journalist and a biographer who was writing a life of Apollinaire, the poet who'd been badly wounded in the First War. Christine was perfect. Her looks, of course. They were certainly very conscious of her, and she was graceful and did not say much. She didn't know any of them and didn't force herself on them. The biographer, who had been working on the book for years, once had the chance to actually meet Apollinaire's old mistress, not the one who threw herself out of a window when Apollinaire died but another one, who was Russian, Apollinaire had written about her in a poem.

"I was thrilled to be able to meet her. I mentioned the poem, of course. She was old by then. Do you know what she said? She said, Oui, je mourrai en beauté, I'll be beautiful until I die, I'll die beautiful — you can't translate it exactly. When I die, I'll still be beautiful, something like that."

From this they began talking about dying and then heaven.

"I don't like the idea of heaven," the hostess said. "For one thing, the people who would be going there. There's no such thing as heaven, anyway."

"Are you certain?" someone said.

"Certain enough. And if I'm wrong, well, you might as well sin on earth — there's not going to be any of that in heaven."

"Are you married?" the biographer asked Bowman and Christine.

"No. Not quite," Bowman said to finish more interest on the biographer's part.

He had not been thinking of marriage but of everything that might lead up to it. He had been thinking ceaselessly of Christine. He knew he would have to do something ordinary, asking her up to the apartment for a drink or a nightcap, the word seemed old-fashioned and even preposterous. He was certain she liked him, but at the same time he was nervous about putting it to the test. He hated the idea of being awkward. At the same time he knew it to be unimportant, that once they were past that, anything awkward would be forgotten. But it didn't matter what he knew, or else he'd forgotten all he knew. The journalist was telling the story of a notorious murder — it wasn't clear where it had happened — that was solved because of traces of semen, he pronounced it semean, found on a cigarette. He managed to repeat the word several times. No one bothered to correct him.

As they left the table, Christine said in a low voice,

"Semean?"

"It must be the French pronunciation," Bowman said.

"Seminé," she suggested.

"It's the title of a song."

"Um. I'll try some," she remarked as if they were talking about an odd menu item. She added, "Do you happen to have any?"

Was she still kidding? She was not looking at him.

"Yes," he said. "Lots."

"I thought you might say that."

For a few moments in the cab they rode quietly, as if they were going to the theater. Then he kissed her, fully, on the mouth. The taste was fresh. He smelled her perfume. He held her hand as they rode up in the elevator.

"Would you like something to drink?" he asked. "Not really."

"I'm going to have a little something."

He poured some bourbon. He felt she was watching him. He drank it rather quickly. He began to kiss her again, holding her by the arms.

In the bedroom, he removed her shoes. Then, in only the light from the other room, they undressed on opposite sides of the bed.

"Lots, you said."

"Yes."

She went into the bathroom. She came out and he said,

"No, stand there for a moment."

He tried to look slowly at her but couldn't. It was the first time, it was always blinding.

"Come here," he said.

She lay beside him for a few minutes, the first minutes, as a swimmer lies in the sun. He could see her nakedness, almost all of it, in the near dark. They made love simply, straightforwardly — she saw the ceiling, he the sheets, like schoolchildren. There was no sound but the float of traffic distant and below. There was not even that. The silence was everywhere and he came like a drinking horse. He lay for a long time on top of her, dreaming, exhausted. She had not made love for more than a year, and she lay dreaming, too, and then asleep.

They woke to the fresh light of the world. She was exactly as she had been the night before though her mouth was pale now and her eyes plain. They made love again, he was like a boy of eighteen, invincibly hard. The apartment was beautiful in a way it had never been, the light in it, her presence. They had not been too hasty in going to bed together, nor had they waited too long. These were merely the days of initiation, he knew. So much was still to come.

They drank orange juice and made coffee. He had to go to work.

"Can we have dinner this evening?"

"No, I'm sorry, I can't this evening ... darling — it's too early to call you darling, isn't it?" she said.

"I don't think so."

"Well, this once."

"Go ahead."

"Darling," she said.

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