Another stop in my journey through James Salter’s sparse output: two novels and a collection of stories down, two novels and a memoir to go. Not much to show for 82 years, you might think, but Salter’s words are so carefully chosen and polished – such quality raw materials – that each book carries more weight than others, and sinks in more slowly, and stays longer afterward. His novels are either about men and women – A Sport and a Pastime, Light Years – or about men and themselves – Cassada, Solo Faces. The Hunters, his debut from 1956, is in this latter category.
In The Hunters, Cleve Connell is battling not only himself but other men: friend and foe. He is a flight commander in the US Air Force in the Korean War, a breed “with that contagious passion peculiar to hunters,” where all that matters to a pilot is getting his first ‘kill’ – bringing down one of the opposing Soviet MIG aircraft. Once he has done that, all that matters then is getting his next four, so that he can become one of the ‘Aces’ with five kills under his belt (and marked on his craft’s fuselage in red stars). This special score would give an Ace
something he never possessed, a hard luster for his assurance. He had become full grown, immutable. If he had seemed frail, he was no sturdier, but that flicking slightness now had an infrangible quality, like cable. He was established. If still shadowed by the ordinary perils, there was one at least he was now fully beyond: disregard.
For others, like Connell himself, the first kill is still elusive. “All a man has to do is want to find them,” they are told. “The desire… that’s all it takes.” But Connell wants them badly, and resists the temptation to curse his luck. “Luck? There’s no luck involved.” To Connell, success in the air battles is a measure of his worth as a man, and his self-respect is dependent on the atrophying respect of his colleagues. How hard it is to take, then, when success clings to others, particularly the conceited – and talented – Pell (“but everybody calls me Doctor”). He despises Pell but dreads becoming like Abbott, who “had been a hero once, in Europe in another war, but the years had worked in irreversible chemistry. He was heavier now, older, and somewhere along the way he had run out of compulsion.” Even now, Connell, an experienced flight commander trying to learn how not to be the freshest and best any more,
had reached the point 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 you can see from all the above, the great temptation when writing about Salter is just to let him do the writing. Although much less rich and luminous in its prose than Light Years, The Hunters is nonetheless relentlessly quotable, and addresses masculine concerns – of purpose, of place – that most literature passes over, without being macho or indelicate. He controls the pace expertly, from the rushes of battle to the doldrums of time in between. The dialogue is peppery and vigorous; the ending is perfect and satisfying. Even in his first novel, Salter achieves with lightness of touch and final weightiness the sort of invisible immortality his fighter pilots dream of: “The way to go is in an instant, reaching for that highest one of the stars and then falling away, disappearing, against the earth. I wouldn’t mind that, would you?”