I had never heard of James Salter till I read a profile of him in the Observer a couple of weeks ago, on the occasion of the publication of his latest book, his first in a long time. Salter is 87 and has produced only six novels, two collections of short stories and a memoir in a writing career that has spanned six decades.
He wrote his first novel following his time as a fighter pilot in the Korean War. The Hunters is based on that experience. I got it last week and have been reading since, gripped by the spare narrative. I stayed in bed this morning to finish it and already sense that it is a book that will remain with me for a long time. I’m in no position to do a full review but I wanted to write something.
The Hunters tells the story of Cleve Connell a fighter pilot who takes charge of a flight, a small group of airmen who fly sorties in jets – ‘ships’ in the unexpected parlance of the airmen – from a base in southern Korea, intermittently encountering enemy MIGs. It is set in a world of men; the female characters are mostly waitresses or escort girls. I’m not sure how much the book will appeal to women but hope it may. The men, being fighters, are by turns gregarious – full of braggadocio – and taciturn, but Cleve observes them clearly.
The story hinges on Cleve’s internal battle with his frustrated aspirations. Arriving at the base as a pilot of reputed skill, he struggles to make his mark as around him lesser men notch up the kills that are the only currency of achievement. Salter’s unadorned prose belies the subtlety of his insight. With quiet proficiency he captures the tensions that run within any team or organisation: the bittersweet mingling of esprit de corps and individual ambition; the smoky trails of careers gone awry. The novel is about airmen but will resonate with those who have never left the ground.
“What is your ambition?” she asked after a while.
Cleve closed his eyes. There had been many ambitions, all of them true at the time. They were scattered behind him like the ashes of old campfires, though he had warmed himself at every one of them.
We are all hunters in a way.