The Hunters by James Salter is an elegantly written, quietly beautiful and utterly devastating novel. It is in many ways harrowing, not surprising since it is a story about the Korean War, but completely compelling to read, too. I've never read Salter before and have never read anything either about the Korean War, though the war remains really very much in the background, or fighter pilots. Perhaps none of the above would be temptations for me normally when reaching for a book, but Salter is now one of my great finds of the year and I think I will happily pick up any of his books whatever the subject. He ranks up there with William Maxwell, Wallace Stegner or Peter Taylor when it comes to gorgeous prose and fine (and I mean that in the elegant sense) storytelling abilities.
The cover illustration on my book is a photo of James Salter who was a fighter pilot in Korea in 1952 when he was 31. He published The Hunters in 1956 and shortly thereafter gave up flying in favor of writing. There is certainly an authenticity to this story and although I do not know much about Salter (he passed away last year), I believe he used his own experiences in writing the book. How closely the novel follows his life I'm unsure, but ultimately the story stands on its own for me as a work of fiction.
As strange as it sounds there were parts of this story that I found eerily similar to what I have been feeling and experiencing in my own life. Not the war aspect, of course, but the humanness, what Cleve Connell, Salter's "hero" is feeling. Cleve is also 31 in the story, which for a pilot is a rather mature airman. Someone who is on the downward slope rather than rising, and this is what is at the heart of the story. Cleve is a "natural flyer, not a cultivated one". When he arrives in Japan en route to Korea he has a "certain renown that seven years in fighters had given him." There are several scenes in the story, all quite subtly rendered that hint at what is to come later.
"One thing he was sure of: this was the end for him. He had known it before he came. He was thirty-one, not too old, certainly; but it would not be long. His eyes weren't good enough any more. With an athlete, the legs failed first. With a fighter pilot, it was the eyes. The hand was still steady and judgement good long after a man lost the ability to pick out aircraft at the extreme ranges."
"He had reached a point, too, where a sense of lost time weighed on him. There was a constant counting of tomorrows he had once been so prodigal with. And he found himself thinking too much of unfortunate things. He was frequently conscious of not wanting to die. That was not the same as wanting to live. It was a black disease, a fixation that could ultimately corrode the soul."
As he waits for papers to transfer him to Korea he spends days of increasing boredom with the other airmen coming and going and he senses that he is joining the fight too late. When he gets there it will all be over. More significantly he crosses paths with a young lieutenant, Ed Pell, who will become a nemesis or rival of sorts. Cleve is the real hero, quietly so, admirably so, but Pell is a brash youth who gets all the glory. If his behavior at the transport station, where he hits on a young Japanese waitress almost causing her to lose her job, is anything to go by, Pell will not be very admirable at all. Typically it is the loud, outgoing personality who wins the attention. Loud and outgoing may well be attractive initially, but less so when what is behind that mask is empty of any real substance or honorable traits.
When Cleve finally arrives at the airbase and begins taking part in missions, he is the flight commander, it becomes quickly apparent that the standard of excellence is the ability to shoot down MIGs. "That was the final judgement. MIGs were everything." And if you didn't get them, you were nothing. And they were tallied and stars attached to a board. And only 'kills' or shot down aircraft count. It also becomes quickly apparent that some of the pilots, fudge their MIG tally. There must be either visual sighting by other pilots or the event filmed.
Cleve is a seasoned flyer and arrives with a respected reputation that precedes him. He has already flown with one of his superiors, but whatever promise that arrived with Cleve seems to leave him. The ongoing argument is whether it is simply down to luck or talent. With each new mission without any MIGs taken begins to corrode that promise. And then Pell arrives on the base and turns everything upside down. He seems to have a magical touch and time and time again he returns from missions the golden boy collecting stars after his name, well on his way to becoming an Ace pilot. And the self-doubt sets in for Cleve. A flight commander who can get no kills. Has he lost his knack, does he simply not have real skill or is it just dumb luck? In any case Pell gets the glory and attention and his ambition will stir up emotions in Cleve and in the older pilots and you see how insidious is his effect on the entire squadron.
This is such an amazing book, yet heart wrenching at times and painful to read. Don't, however, be put off as it's not painful in the descriptions of air battles (there is really only one big one at the end), but more so with characterization and the internal struggles that go on with the men. It IS war, yet the story somehow also feels a little apart from it all. I said there were parts that were eerily familiar, and this is what makes this such an amazing read and one that will transcend categorization and stand the test of time. There are a few bits that I dog eared as they struck me so.
"Being in a squadron was a digest of life. You were a child when you joined. There was endless opportunity, and everything was new. Gradually, almost unknowingly, the days of painful learning and delight were over; you achieved maturity; and then suddenly you were old, with new faces and relationships that were difficult to recognize rising up quickly all around you, until you found yourself existing practically unwelcome in the midst of them, with all the men you had known and lived with gone and the war little more than unsharable memories of things that had taken place long ago. It was like the last year of college, and the final examinations just over. Everybody was rushing to leave, many of them friends. Most of them you would never see again."
I am feeling that sense of dislocation in my own life in certain aspects. A feeling of being adrift and that life is completely disjointed. So it is curious for that same sense to turn up in a novel about a fighter pilot in the Korean War. But then why not? He says at the start of the quote that it was a "digest of life".
Definitely a book for my top ten later this year. I have already ordered Salter's Light Years and A Sport and a Pastime and have All That Is waiting for me at the library, which I can't wait to get to. Many, many thanks to Caroline for choosing The Hunters for her Literature and War Readalong. Please pop on over to read her thoughts on the book. I am not sure I would have tried James Salter otherwise (and now I urge you to go pick up one of his books, too). Next up is Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain for the end of September, which is about the war in Iraq (more new reading territory for me). We have already read Storm Warning by Vanessa Gebbie and 1914 by Jean Echenoz.