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.

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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.

24 thoughts on “James Salter: The Hunters (1956) Literature and War Readalong May 2016

  1. I read this pre-blog and was hugely impressed by it, much more so than by his A Sport and a Pastime (which I did review, and positively, but this is much better).

    Great review Caroline of a great book.

    • Thank you, Max. It’s a brilliant novel. I loved the way he uses metaphor. And mood. The whole story is great and unpredictable. I have got his Light Years here. That should be rather good as well. I hope.

  2. I’m going to echo Max’s comments on all counts – an excellent review of a great book. It was a pre-blog read for me as well, and I much preferred it to A Sport and a Pastime (which had a very different ‘feel’ to this one). I completely agree with your comments on the characterisation and the feeling of suspense in the novel. You can tell he’s writing from first-hand experience of this environment.

    • Thanks Jacqui. It would never have felt so authentic, if he hadn’t been there, I’m sure.
      It seems A Sport and a Pastime is the weaker novel. There really is suspense. I was afraid the ending might be predictable but it wasn’t. He rally is a great writer.

  3. Wonderful review, Caroline. This looks like a fast-paced action war novel. I think it would make a good movie. Maybe it was made into one. Glad to know that the introduction is wonderful. One could read the book just for that. Glad to know that you found the ending unexpected and satisfying. That is the best kind of ending, I think.

    • Thanks, Vishy. It’s fast-paced. I didn’t look whether it was made into a movie. I’m not sure. James Salter certianly knew what he was writing about.
      I hope you will read him some day. It is the best kind of ending. I was wondering the whole time.

  4. Great review Caroline.

    There does not seem to be a lot of fiction out that that centers on the Korean war.

    The “Casey Jones” pilot that you describe sounds like an interesting dramatic twist in the plot.

  5. I thought A Sport and a Pastime was excellent, and his recent novel All That Is has some strengths, so I shall one day get round to this one.

    • I suppose that Max and Jacqui read this one before A Sport and a Pastime. I’m sure you’ll appreciate thus one. I will read more if Sakter, that’s for sure.

  6. I absolutely loved this book and don’t think I would have picked any of his work up (just was not familiar with him) had you not chosen it as one of your literature and war reads. It is definitely my favorite of the three we’ve read so far (I am posting about it later this morning) and maybe my favorite read so far this year in general. I didn’t really get any sense of what the Korean War was like or the politics, but it is an amazing character study. I felt very akin to Cleve’s emotions and tiredness even though life experiences are so vastly different. It was a maddening book–because of Pell and his manipulations and indifference and ambitions–but Cleve got what he wanted–in a much more valorous way in the end. I think it couldn’t really end any other way. My copy, curiously, has a cover quote along the lines of “darkly romantic” which initially I thought of as romance in the usual sense of the word and thought that wasn’t the case at all, but maybe it was meant romance in the sense of adventure because of the flying. It is interesting to read about fighter pilots and what they must have felt and been pressured into trying to accomplish. Salter reminds me of other writers like William Maxwell whom I greatly admire. Anyway–lovely review (unfortunately my copy does not have any sort of foreword or afterword-so I had to google a bit) I love the quotes you chose and had marked the first one you used, too. Thanks for pointing me in Salter’s direction!!

    • I’m so glad you liked it too. And that it will make your best of list. I still can’t belive I’ve not picked any of his books up so far although I own Light Years. I hadn’t thought of Maxwell but now that you mention it.
      I felt for Cleve. This Pell is such an obnoxious character but very realistic.
      I’ve watched a lot of air combat movies, so I was somewhat familar with some things but this was a unique experience.
      I wonder why they called it darkly romantic on your copy. Is it an older edition? Heroism was often called romantic in earlier decades, I think.
      Thanks for joining me. I’m lookin g forward to your review and will then add it. Thanks for your kind words about the review.

      • I’m not sure when my copy came out–1999 according to Amazon. It is a curious comment but I think it must not been meant in the conventional way. I am so glad I read along–my reading year has been so much better than last year’s. I think the styles are not exactly the same but the elegance of the writing puts me in mind of Maxwell. His prose is not really fancy but it’s just really good. And I know there are plenty of Pells walking around. Some people seem to live a charmed life like that–you do wonder how they get away with it!

        • Do they really get away with it? For a long time but then it often catches up with them. At least, that’s what I observed.
          In a way Salter is like an elegant version of Hemingway. If that makes sense.

  7. This one sounds A LOT better than All that is.
    Great review, I’m interested in reading it even if I couldn’t finish All that is.
    One was written in 1956 and the other in 2013, there’s a lifetime between the two and it probably influenced his writing.

    PS : there are fascinating passages about fighting as a pilot in the RAF during WWII in Promise at Dawn by Romain Gary.

  8. Pingback: The Ten Best Books I Read in 2016 | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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