James Salter: The Hunters (1956) Literature and War Readalong May 2016

The Hunters

The Hunters was James Salter’s first novel. It is based on his own experience as a fighter pilot during the war in Korea.

The Hunters tells the story of Cleve Connell, an excellent, seasoned pilot who is sent to Korea. Cleve is anxious to get there. He wants to prove himself and become an ace, a fighter pilot who has shot down five enemy planes – MIGs. He knows he’s running against time because he isn’t a young pilot anymore.

One thing he was sure of: this was the end of 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 anymore. With a athlete, the legs failed first. With a fighter pilot, it was the eyes. The hand was still steady and judgement good long after  man lost the ability to pick out aircraft at the extreme ranges. Other things could help to make up for it, and other eyes could help him look, but in the end it was too much of a handicap. He had reached the 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.

Cleve and every other pilot lives for nothing else but the adrenaline rush of a mission that may bring the possibility to shoot down an MIG and to survive another dangerous mission. The pilots are all competitive but that doesn’t mean they would endanger each other.

They had shot down at least five MIGs apiece. Bengert had seven, but five was the number that separated men from greatness. Cleve had come to see, as had everyone, ho rigid was that casting. There were no other values. It was like money: it did not matter how it had been acquired, but only that it had. That was the final judgement. MIGs were everything. If you had MIGs you were standard of excellence. The sun shone upon you.

Then, one day, Pell arrives. Pell is by far the most competitive pilot Cleve has ever met. And the most reckless. He’s assigned to Cleve’s flight, a small group of pilots of which Cleve’s the leader. Cleve hates him immediately. Not only because he’s so competitive but because he senses he would do anything for a kill and that he’s dishonest. Pell hates Cleve just as much. He’s jealous of his reputation and undermines his authority from the start.

At first, Cleve’s very sure of himself because he’s known to be one of the best pilots but after he returns from many missions, without one single kill, he loses confidence. On top of that, Pell shoots down one enemy plane after the other and, so, killing turns into an obsession for Cleve.

Cleve’s not the only pilot who seems to have forgotten, that ultimately they are in a war. The following quote might explain why this is the case.

They talked for a while longer, mostly about the enemy, what surprisingly good ships they flew and what a lousy war it was. The major repeated that despairingly several times.

“What do you mean, lousy?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Abbott said distractedly, “it’s just no good. I mean what are we fighting for, anyway? There’s nothing for us to win. It’s no good, Cleve, You’ll see.”

The Korean war is often referred to as the “forgotten war” and this sense of not really knowing what they were fighting for, seems to have been almost universal. Many of the pilots who fought in the Korean war, fought during WWII. While they had the sense of having done good in Europe and the Pacific, they often didn’t really understand why they fought in Korea. However, the book doesn’t explore the political or historical dimensions of the war. It only focuses on the drama of the pilots.

The Hunters is an excellent novel and the reader senses that from the beginning. The writing is tight and precise. Salter uses metaphor and foreshadowing with great results. He’s also very good at capturing emotions and moods like in this quote:

He was tired. Somehow, he had the feeling of Christmas away from home, stranded in a cheap hotel, while the snow fell silently through the night, making the streets wet and the railroad tracks gleam.

The book offers a fascinating character study, or rather the study of two characters. And it’s suspenseful. We wonder constantly whether Cleve will make it, become an ace and leave Pell behind or whether Pell will leave him behind for good. And then there’s the almost mythical figure of “Casey Jones”, a Korean Fighter pilot who is so reckless and successful that everybody speaks about him and thinks he’s invincible. Shooting down a pilot like that, would make up for everything else.

I can’t say more as it would spoil this excellent novel. It’s amazingly well written and surprisingly suspenseful. And, as if that was not enough, the end is unexpected and satisfying.

The book comes with a foreword, for which I was glad as it’s key to understand in what formations the pilots flew and to know what the characteristics of the respective planes were. There’s a great scene towards the end, in which Cleve and another pilot fight with almost empty tanks. The logic of this and other fights would have been difficult to understand without the introduction.

Other reviews

 

 

 

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The Hunters is the third book in the Literature and War Readalong 2016. The next book is the US novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. Discussion starts on Friday 30 September, 2016. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2016, including the book blurbs can be found here.

On Claudia Piñeiro’s “Elena sabe” (Elena Knows) – “Elena weiss Bescheid” (2007)

Elena sabeElena weiss BescheidElena et le roi détrône

Claudia Piñeiro is an Argentinian crime writer. Most of her novels have received prizes. This one is no exception. It received an Argentinian and a German prize. The good news—most of Piñeiro’s novels have been translated. The bad news—for reasons I really don’t get, this is one hasn’t been translated into English, but you can read it either in Spanish Elena sabe, French – Elena et le roi détrôné or German Elena weiss Bescheid. I suppose there are other translations.

Ever since I read Piñeiro’s All Yours – Tuya  in 2012, I knew I wanted to read more of her novels. Not sure why it took me so long. Two weeks ago, I thought of her again and ordered this one and another one, Thursday Night Widows.

Elena knows tells the story of a woman, Elena, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease. Her daughter, Rita, has been found dead in a belfry. The police have ruled that it was a suicide but Elena cannot accept that. She is sure that Rita was murdered. The book follows two alternating timelines, both from Elena’s point of view. The first is set firmly in the present, while the second timeline tells Elena and Rita’s story in flashbacks up until the suicide/murder. Since the police have stopped the investigation, Elena has decided that she will investigate on her own. Since she suffers from advanced Parkinson’s disease, this is a difficult task. The timeline set in the present follows her on a journey from her apartment to someone else’s apartment. She hasn’t seen this person in twenty years but hopes that she will “lend” her her body and investigate on Elena’s behalf.

What a breathtaking story. So well done and with an amazing twist at the end. I can’t say I knew a lot about Parkinson’s before reading this novel. I do now. I had no idea how awful this is. Elena’s days are an ordeal. Every single thing needs careful planning. Even the most mundane, routine acts. She cannot lift her head anymore, due to atrophied muscles in the neck. She cannot move, walk, etc, unless she takes tablets that take a certain amount of time to kick in and whose effect dwindles all too quickly. The flash back sections tell us that she lives with Rita, a forty-year-old single woman and that their relationship is one of love and hate. They exchange sentences that feel like the cracking of whips. Needless to say, Rita is the one who takes care of Elena. From what Elena tells the reader, we can deduce that Rita’s disgusted by her mother’s illness.

Following Elena on her trip to the other end of the city, is painful to read. But it’s equally painful to read about Rita’s life with her.

In a novel that is told like a taut crime novel, Claudia Piñeiro explores topics like illness, getting older, the responsibilities of women to take care of the elderly and of kids. She shows us women trapped in situations from which there’s no escaping. The end came as a shock but made perfect sense.

This is an outstanding novel. Sharp, taut, and unsparing. Highly recommended.

Pia Juul: The Murder of Halland – Mordet på Halland – Das Leben nach dem Happy End (2009)

The Murder of Halland

If you know that Pia Juul’s novel The Murder of Halland (Mordet på HallandDas Leben nach dem Happy End) plays with reader expectations, then you might enjoy this novel. If, however, you expect a conventional crime novel, you might be a little disappointed. Yes, it’s about a crime, but not a crime novel per se.

Pia Juul is a Danish writer, that’s why I read the German translation (I think that German is closer to most Nordic languages than English). While the English title is a literal translation of the Danish title, the German publisher chose to call the book “Life after the Happy End”. I don’t like the title but, at least, it didn’t sound like it was a crime novel.

The book opens with the murder of Halland. Or rather the discovery of his dead body. The man who found him says that Halland’s last words were “My wife killed me.” The reader knows that Bess, his partner, didn’t kill him. She was in the house, while he was shot.

Bess is a writer who left her first husband and her daughter because of Halland. She hasn’t seen her daughter since the girl was fourteen years old and has suffered because of this separation ever since. The daughter is now a young woman of 24.

Like most readers, even though I knew this wasn’t a typical crime novel, I assumed that the book would explore who shot Halland and why. The police does investigate, but it’s a half-hearted investigation. Of course, that’s not realistic, it was the writers choice to present the story this way. The reason for this is revealed later in the book when Bess watches a crime movie on TV and tells the reader that she’s never interested in the “who did it part” of a crime story and mostly forgets the end. She is much more interested in the people involved. The life of the victim, the investigator, and the friends and relatives of the victim. I feel a lot like Bess. I read crime novels for many reasons. Finding out who did it isn’t that important for me.

When Bess hears of Halland’s death, her first reaction is to call her estranged daughter. That reaction alone makes it clear we’re not going to read an ordinary story and from here on, Bess reacts in a rather unconventional way. And this is exactly why I found this book so great. Luckily, most of us will not encounter murder. We won’t find our partners shot dead or be friends with someone whose partner has been shot dead. So, why do we assume we know how a person would react under the circumstances? We think we know because we see how people in movies and books react. But maybe they wouldn’t cry and grief, maybe they would just go a little crazy? Maybe they would be so shocked that they wouldn’t react at all and just withdraw from the world?

Bess does go a little crazy but there are a lot of other things that are strange and the reader discovers with Bess that Halland may not have been who she thought he was and that he had secrets. Here again, expectations are not met. There are secrets but they are different from what we assume and possibly do not have anything to do with the murder as such. Or maybe they do? That’s for you to find out.

I really enjoyed this book. I found it refreshing, loved the brittle tone and how surprising it was. It’s never forseeable how Bess will react and in what direction the story will go next.

It’s a thought-provoking book that leaves a lot open. If you prefer the end of your novels to be less enigmatic, then this isn’t a book for you. If you like something more unusual, with unpredictable characters, then give it a try.

Here’s another take on the novel from Guy’s blog.

Das Leben nach dem Happy End

Elizabeth Taylor: At Mrs Lippincote’s (1945)

At Mrs Lippincote's

Published in 1945, At Mrs Lippincote’s was Elizabeth Taylor’s first novel. It’s my fourth Elizabeth Taylor novel and while it’s not my favourite, I liked it a great deal. It’s as sharp and witty as the others and a subtle exploration of truth and hypocrisy in wartime England, a time when the English society and its conventions changed rapidly. At the heart of the novel is the story of a marriage in dissolution. Julia and Roddy Davenant, and their son, live at the house of a widow, Mrs Lippincote. Her house is a stuffy house, filled with mahogany furniture. Roddy, who is in the RAF, was stationed in London before. His superior sent him to the countryside, hoping it would help save his marriage.

Julia is a great character. At times she’s a little intimidated by the formidable-sounding Mrs Lippincote and all the officers her husband works with, but most of the time, she just doesn’t care about convention and says so. This quote captures her particularly well:

Julia had a strange gift of coming to a situation freshly, peculiarly untarnished by preconceived ideas, whether of her own preconception or the world’s. Could she have taken for granted a few of those generalisations invented by men and largely acquiesced in by women (that women live by their hearts, men by their heads, that love is a woman’s whole existence, and especially that sons should respect their fathers), she would have eased her own life and other people’s.

Julia spends most of the time alone with her son or walking the small town at night, on her own, while her husband pretends he’s at his club. These nightly walks, more even than the way she expresses herself, shock her husband as they show an independence he doesn’t care for. He, who is anything but a model husband, hides his own shortcomings behind his hypocritical outrage. Her outings are quite harmless, although people start to talk because she’s visiting a man. Mr Taylor is someone they once knew in London. He’s the most tragic figure in this novel. He was the manager of an elegant restaurant in London but he has lost everything. His restaurant, his home, and his health. He is now the owner of a shabby pub. He and Julia are possibly the only really honest people in this novel. All around them people seem to be pretending:  that they have a better status than they really have; that they are faithful and morally superior or that they aren’t afraid of anything.

Here’s Mr. Taylor’s take on this.:

“Bombed out” is a phrase the world was now used to. “But you were lucky,” people would say, “not to have been sleeping there.” “No one was hurt,” he would say. It was like a game of tennis, that sort of conversation: the ball went back and forth but no one was really involved, the expected replies were dealt and after the game had been kept up for a while, the other side tired, and feeling it had done well, changed the subject. But the truth had not been spoken. Had he suddenly said: “My life ended just he same, whether I was killed or not. This that I have now means nothing to me and has no value,” they would still not have understood.

“And then, ” he continued, “there are all the people who refuse to have their morale destroyed. They are the worst part of the whole affair. Sometimes you feel it would be such a relief to say you’re frightened, but those awful people stop you. You go about all day longing to tell someone you’ve lost your nerve, or to hear someone say the same thing to you, but it never happens.”

Julia is so honest that she doesn’t even have illusions when it comes to herself:

“I think I am going on up, willy-nilly. This morning I read in the paper about something vile the Nazis did, and I thought: “It’s all right. It’s not as bad as the atrocity I read about last week.” I was very much shocked at myself.”

“War does that for one.”

“Yes. That’s what I said. The contemplation of brutality brutalises. ( . . . )”

Like in all of Elizabeth Taylor’s books, the best parts are the characterisations. She shows us people and their foibles and follies. There are some great, eccentric characters in this book.

Elizabeth Taylor is always astute and unmasks her character’s with her sharp mind. In this novel she unmasks a whole society and era – wartime England and all the small and big lies people tell themselves and each other. I think her subtle description of the mentality of the time – this clinging to the old conventions – the fear of the new – the stress of the war – is stunning. It’s what makes this a truly remarkable book.

Dorothy B. Hughes: In a Lonely Place (1947)

In a Lonely Place

I came across Dorothy B. Hughes excellent noir novel In a Lonely Place in Books to Die For, a book of essays on important crime novels. Each of the articles was written by a famous crime writer. The book has been edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke. The article on In a Lonely Place was written by Megan Abbott. I’m sure I would have liked In A Lonely Place without reading Abbott’s essay but I might have missed a few things.

Books to Die For

Hughes novel is one of the first serial killer novels and inspired later works like Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. I know that many readers of this blog are averse to serial killer novels and I understand why. But this one is a very different book. There are three types of serial killer novels—those from the point of view of the victim, those from the point of view of the detectives and those from the killer’s point of view. The mainstream/bestselling novels usually fall into category one or two, while this one falls into the third category. Unfortunately, the blurb gives a very wrong impression and the reader thinks (s)he is reading a thriller-type story. That was never Hughes intention. Without the blurb it’s clear from the beginning that we’re in the head of the killer, Dix Steele. Dix is a WWII veteran who has just moved to L.A. and, on the spur of a moment, contacts Brub Nicolai, a former army buddy, who served with him in the UK, not knowing that he is a detective. An other perpetrator would have stayed away or fled, not so Dix Steele. He loves the idea of being able to follow the investigation very closely.

Here’s an early quote which doesn’t only give an idea of Dorothy B. Hughes’ writing but also of how eerie this scenario is. Brub is obviously talking to Dix.

Brub started, “Wha-” He realized Dix’s question. ” I guess it’s pretty much my fault. Ever since the thing started, I’ve been afraid for her. She’s lived in  the canyon all her life. She never had any fear, wandered all over it, any time of the day. But the canyon at night, the way the fogs come in— it’s a place for him.” His face was again angry, helplessly angry. “I’ve scared her. She’s alone so much. I never know what hours I have to keep. We have good neighbours, a couple of our best friends are right across the road. But you know our street. It’s dark and lonely and the way our house is set up there—” He broke off. “I’m the one who’s scared; I’ve infected her. And I can’t help it. I can’t pretend until we caught him.”

Megan Abbott emphasized in her essay that this is far more than a serial killer novel or an ordinary noir. The author went further than others in showing how difficult it was for veterans to return. How in many cases, they felt like their masculinity was in danger. The book is as much about gender as it is about crime. Men like Dix Steele had to reinvent themselves after the war. With the end of the war, they lost their identity.

What made me love this book is that we actually pity Dix Steele. He’s more than a little troubled and his suffering is genuine. Here’s a quote to illustrate this:

A man couldn’t live alone; he needed friends. He needed a woman, a real woman. Like Brub and Sylvia. Like that stupid Cary had that stupid Maude. Better than being alone.

It wasn’t often it hit him hard. It was the balmy night and the early dusk and the look of the lamps through opened windows and the sound of music from radios in the lighted rooms. he’d eschewed human relationship for something stronger, something a hell of a lot better.

What makes Dix Steele so tragic is that he is not only greedy and full of longing— for women he can’t have, for status, money, relationships, the “good life”— but also oddly hopeful. He believes that with the right woman everything might be different. When he sees Laurel Grey for the first time, a young  actress who is just as greedy for the good life, as he is, he genuinely believes, she might be his saviour.

I love nothing as much as atmospherical crime novels and this one might be one of the greatest in this regard. Set in L.A., it really brings the city to life and makes great use of the landscape and weather conditions. I thought that fog and mist were particular to San Francisco but reading this, I have to assume that the L.A. area (at the time?) was constantly foggy. Reading how this lonely, deranged and driven killer hunts for his prey in the fog made for great reading.

In a Lonely Place has been made into a movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. I haven’t seen it but I get the impression, the ending is very different.

Dorothy B. Hughes had an unusual writing career. She published twelve novels, three of which were made into movies, before she stopped writing in 1950. Allegedly, because she took care of her mother and her grandchildren. She died in 1993. It’s a bit sad to think that this great writer spent the last forty years of her life not writing.

Literature and War Readalong May 31 2016: The Hunters by James Salter

The Hunters

James Salter’s The Hunters is this month’s Literature and War Readalong title. It’s the first novel about the Korean war that we’re reading in the read along. I’ve been keen on reading James Salter for ages as he’s always mentioned as one of the greatest US writers. Published in 1956, The Hunters was Salter’s first novel. Until the publication of this novel, Salter was a career officer and pilot in the US Air Force. He served during the Korean war where he flew over 100 combat missions. This was certainly the reason why he chose to write about a fighter pilot in his first novel. The novel has been made into a movie starring Robert Mitchum and Robert Wagner. James Salter died last June in Sag Harbor, New York.

Here are the first sentences:

A winter night, black and frozen, was moving over Japan, over the choppy waters to the east, over the rugged floating islands, all the cities and towns, the small houses, the bitter streets.

Cleve stood at the window, looking out. Dusk had arrived, and he felt a numb lethargy. Full animation had not yet returned to him. It seemed that everybody had gone somewhere while he had been asleep. The room was empty.

He leaned forward slightly and allowed the pane to touch the tip of his nose. It was cold but benign. A circle of condensation formed quickly about the spot. He exhaled a few times through his mouth and made it larger. After a while he stepped back from the window. He hesitated, and then traced the letters C M C in the damp translucence.

 

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join:

The Hunters by James Salter, 233 pages, US 1957, War in Korea

Here’s the blurb:

Captain Cleve Connell arrives in Korea with a single goal: to become an ace, one of that elite fraternity of jet pilots who have downed five MIGs. But as his fellow airmen rack up kill after kill – sometimes under dubious circumstances – Cleve’s luck runs bad. Other pilots question his guts. Cleve comes to question himself. And then in one icy instant 40,000 feet above the Yalu River, his luck changes forever. Filled with courage and despair, eerie beauty and corrosive rivalry, James Salter’s luminous first novel is a landmark masterpiece in the literature of war.

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The discussion starts on Tuesday, 31 May 2016.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2016, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.