Sunday, September 15, 2013

James Salter’s The Hunters

I have long been a fan of James Salter’s fiction, though I’ve thus far avoided contact with his latest novel, All That Is. Salter is now 88, and this is probably his swan song—you never know?—but after reading a few reviews, I’m worried that I would find it uncomfortably similar to his autobiography, Burning the Days (1997). The right time will come.

Looking for a book to read on the plane recently, I pulled out a reissue of Salter’s first novel, The Hunters (1957), which deals with fighter pilots during the last days of the Korean War. I bought it when the reissue came out in 1997, somewhat rewritten, but never gave it another glance. The pages have long since begun to yellow.

It’s a very good book. It has all the qualities that make Salter’s writing seem “great” to his (belatedly) growing body of fans. The sentences are exquisite. There is poetry in the prose. Adjectives and phrases pile on one another to generate a rhapsodic, lyrical atmosphere of the moment.

But reading the book, I was also struck by a few aspects of Salter’s work that are less often noted. For one thing, he has a bead on the world of male competition, rivalry, envy, and self-esteem, arrogant and otherwise, as do few other writers. Even rarer still, I think, is his dedication to exposing a realm beyond those things, in which a man succeeds in exploiting his potential to its utmost, regardless of the impact it has on the crowds surrounding him who are unlikely to have a clue as to what he’s striving for.

The novel describes a few months in the career of an experienced jet pilot named Cleve, who’s called up during the Korean War to serve under his old flight leader Emil. Emil is a talented commander but also a self-aggrandizing hot-shot, more concerned with how many “kills” he can report to his superiors in Tokyo than with his pilots’ safety or any military objective.  

The central conflict of the tale arises when a new recruit, Pell, arrives in Cleve’s unit. Bursting with charm and swagger, Pell soon gathers two dubious “kills.” (Cleve has none.) A wingman, there is some question whether Pell abandoned his position in pursuit of personal glory. He offers a facile defense of his actions, which both Cleve and Emil accept: Emil, because Pell is getting the “kills,” Cleve, because he doesn’t want to sow the seeds of enmity in his unit—an enmity that would appear to many as sheer envy.

But Cleve is privately disgusted by Pell’s behavior and also his character. His notion of aerial combat is on an entirely different plane.

Early on in the book, Cleve is talking to one of his men who admits that his great ambition is to survive the war and return to his wife and children in the States.

For a naked moment, they looked at each other. It had been a genuine confidence, and Cleve knew then how good his chances really were. Whatever the advantages of ability, there was some­thing even more important. It was motive. He had come to meet his enemy, without reservation. The discomfort was there, even after talking to Desmond, of perhaps encountering one that would prove his equal; it was always a chance, but, even so, he felt encouraged. He had not come merely to survive. He sud­denly felt the uplift of being that much above those who had, who lived on a subordinate plane of endeavor.

The loftiness of Cleve’s quest has touches of arrogance and condescension about it; after all, he doesn’t have a wife and kids to go home to. But it also carries an aesthetic dimension. For him, vanquishing the enemy is not an act of patriotism or violence or aggression or justice being done—it’s an act of nobility and panache. I am better than you, and I’ll show you how. World affairs has nothing to do with it. It’s a matter of sky and clouds and landscape and maneuver, like a deadly ballet in which only one dancer remains standing.

The unfortunate thing is, the missions Cleve flies come up very short of MIGs, whereas Pell continues to rack up the kills, eventually becoming an ace.

Cleve arrived in Korea with a vaunted reputation, but as the uneventful missions mount up his reputation erodes and he begins to doubt himself. On leave in Tokyo, he meets and falls in love with a Japanese woman—the daughter of an artist to whom his father has provided him with an introduction. He tries to explain the nature of his quest to her but she doesn’t quite understand, and when she asks him, point blank, “And after the war? What then?” he finds himself at a loss to answer.

The two plan to meet the next day, but Cleve cuts his furlough short when he learns that Pell has scored another kill.

I’m not going to reveal anything more about the plot. And I’m not going to rhapsodize about the quality of the prose. Here’s a passage, chosen at random:

The days became hot buzzing. Long, dusty walks crossed them. Shoes scuffed at the dry earth, and the sun shone down heavy as mist. Voices at night carried far through the swollen air, and the weak glow of electric lights lasted late in the rooms. It was not easy to sleep—not like the winter with its hushed, blanketed hours and the metal of the stove creaking from the heat. The in­sects were bad, and there was only Korean ice.

It’s like Hemingway, but with added sophistication.

I’d only like to say that The Hunters is a good book about men. The literati like it…and all the retired fighter-pilots swear by it, too.

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