The Hunters, the American writer James Salter’s debut novel from 1956, tells the story of an aging fighter pilot’s unnerving first tour of duty in the Korean War. A spry 233 pages (in the Vintage paperback edition), the novel brushes lightly over coordinates, dates, and times. Nowhere do we get a sense of how the air campaign figures into the wider conflict. There is little talk of demilitarized zones, communism, or democracy. Few battles are mentioned, even fewer generals.
The opacity is deliberate. The setting of The Hunters is the sky over the Korean peninsula, where contrails contort battle lines, and the borders between yesterday, today, and tomorrow bleed together. As in Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, the emotional experience of war is the focus, in particular an internecine rivalry that crackles through an elite band of American aviators.
With his new novel, former fighter pilot James Salter is once again on a war footing
The book was received with warm praise and modest sales, and Hollywood turned it into a movie starring Robert Mitchum. Upon its reissue in the 1990s, military aviation historian Robert F. Dorr called it “the finest work ever to appear in print—ever—about men who fly and fight.”
Salter’s terse yet highly lyrical descriptions of flight (“It was still all adventure, as exciting as love, as frightening”), weather (“There came a morning like autumn or the long marble corridors of some museum”), and failure (“It was like having a leech’s mouth on your breast, forever draining, so that everything had to be sacrificed for nothing more than sustaining the burden of flesh”), strung across what is essentially a classic morality tale, announced a promising new voice in American fiction.
He wrote a second Air Force–related novel,The Arm of Flesh, in 1961, set this time among pilots in occupied Germany following the Second World War, but it flopped and Salter soon found muses other than war.
The 1967 novella A Sport and a Pastime, in which a guileful narrator recounts a love affair between a Yale dropout and a gorgeous French shopgirl in Burgundy, established him as one of his generation’s great sensualists. Similar works followed, including the 1975 Light Years, which maps the glacial disintegration of a New England marriage. His 1988 collection Dusk and Other Stories received the PEN/Faulkner Award, and in 2012, he won the PEN/Malamud Award for his body of work, an honor bestowed on such masters of fiction as Joyce Carol Oates, Eudora Welty, Saul Bellow, and John Updike.
This spring, the 87-year-old writer releases a new novel, All That Is, that once again puts Salter on a war footing. The protagonist, Philip Bowman, is a naval officer fresh out of the Pacific battles of World War II and taking on a new job as an editor with a New York publishing house. It is almost as if Salter were reconciling, for the first time in his fiction, his lives as a military man and a man of letters. Which is intriguing, because well into his literary career Salter dismissed The Hunters as the work of an amateur and his Air Force years as something of a digression from his true calling. Despite his ambivalence toward it, The Hunters remains a searing read, and revisiting the novel, you can clearly see how Salter the writer was shaped and galvanized by fierce combat in the air over Korea.
THE COVER OF The Hunters features a grainy photo of Salter as a young man in the open cockpit of a fighter jet. Born James Horowitz (he took Salter as a pen name), he entered the U.S. Military Academy in 1942.
Stanford had been his first choice; he applied to West Point as a courtesy to his father, an army captain turned Manhattan real-estate broker who had graduated at the top of the class of 1919. When the academy sent its acceptance, Salter took the trodden path.
But in the loud, crowded confines of West Point, he floundered. Salter quoted poetry to stave off the boredom of standing at attention. He stockpiled demerits, lived for weekend visits from girlfriends. “I was an unpromising cadet,” he writes in the memoir Burning the Days, “not the worst but a laggard. Among the youngest, and more immature than my years, I had neither the wisdom of country boys, who knew beasts and the axioms of hardware stores, nor the real toughness of the city.”
When the time came to order a class ring, Salter asked if he could have something besides “United States Army” engraved on the gold band. “If you don’t think the U.S. Army is good enough for you,” one of his superiors roared, “did you ever stop to think that you might not be good enough for the U.S. Army?”
The message took. Salter dug in. He would go on, beginning in 1949, to serve for 12 years in the U.S. Air Force. Assigned to the 335th Fighter Squadron during Korea, he piloted F-86 Sabres out of Kimpo Air Base on a hundred-odd missions. He finished the war having shot down one MiG and damaged another, which, he writes, “I would sometimes, among the unknowing, elevate to a probable, never more.”
Although his record was respectable, Salter never got the five planes that would earn him the title of ace. “A small red star painted on the side of a pilot’s plane, just below the cockpit, was the symbol of a kill,” Salter writes in the preface to the 1997 edition of The Hunters. “Discreet, almost invisible in the air, a row of five was a mark of highest honor, greater than any trophy or prize.”
The desire to become an ace, the distress over returning from missions with little to show, and an acidic envy of cohorts with hot trigger hands vivifies Salter’s wartime journal entries. Collected in the 2004 Gods of Tin, a slim compendium of his flying-related prose, the journals call to mind those of John Cheever. Though less exhaustive and far more impressionistic, they exhibit the same raw emotion, one might even say cantankerousness.
“The worst feeling of all,” Salter wrote in a characteristically bitter entry from May 1952, two months before he got his only kill, “is when flights come in with no tanks and noses blackened from fighting—they have gotten MiGs.”
With 218 kills, Salter’s 335th Squadron was tops among American units in Korea, and The Hunters viscerally recreates the cutthroat culture that fueled its success. When Cleve Connell, the novel’s 31-year-old protagonist, arrives at Kimpo, his wing commander, Colonel Imil, boldly guarantees fame: “You’ll eat them up. You’ll hit the glory road here, Cleaver, believe me.” Imil speaks of the Korean sky as if it were a stocked fishing pond. To him, a hero of the Second World War, Korea has about it the feel of child’s play. You fly, you take aim, the bad guys fall through the clouds; afterward your buddies buy the beers and light your cigar.
The Korean War of The Hunters is, in many ways, the antithesis of World War II. The poet Randall Jarrell wrote memorably of his experience flying over Europe: “In bombers named for girls, we burned the cities we had learned about in school.” The geography of Jarrell’s war is familiar, even romantic. Salter’s theater, by contrast, is enigmatic, strange. He writes of horizons “rimmed with a band of green mist.” The sea is like “an immense piece of jade.” From above, the rice paddies skirting Kimpo give rise to an “elusive, mystic sensation.”
NOTICE ALSO JARRELL’S USE of the first person plural “we.” The loss of innocence he so wrenchingly conjures in his work is softened somewhat by the shared nature of the experience. For Salter’s characters in The Hunters, however, camaraderie is frangible. Fighter pilots fly solo beneath the plexiglass canopies of their F-86s. They succeed or fail on their own. “I,” in other words, trounces “we.”
As the war progresses, the promised renown eludes Connell. He rarely encounters the enemy in the air. On the few occasions he does, he sacrifices kill opportunities to respond to calls for help from fellow pilots.
Though he returns to the tarmac with a clear conscience, his failure is put into sharp relief by Pell, a brash young pilot who shirks protocol and has handfuls of MiG kills to report. In a fighter wing where little else registers, Pell soon makes ace and becomes the talk of Kimpo.
Connell discounts Pell’s exploits then seeks to publicly disgrace him. When his smear campaign backfires, he retreats into the cool remove of disenchantment. Near the end of his tour, in an impressive display of derring-do, Connell guns down Casey Jones, a legendary enemy fighter whom Imil has been after for years.
But instead of staking his rightful claim to the prize, he passes the credit to Hunter, his wingman who died when his plane ran out of fuel and crashed.
By deflecting the honor he deserves, he makes a private mockery of Imil’s pursuit of glory. Connell’s is a lonely conquest but a towering one for him personally. His illusions about war and his place in it are gone. He is no longer a slave to the opinion of superiors. “He had nothing frivolous remaining to believe in then,” Salter writes, “only an obdurate residue more precious than a handful of diamonds.”
IT IS EASY TO IMAGINE Connell going on to become a writer like James Salter. For both character and creator, the military gradually loses its sacrosanctity. “It was precisely like divorce,” Salter wrote of his falling-out with the Air Force in a 1993 interview with the Paris Review, “the sort of divorce where two decent people simply cannot get along with one another; it’s not a question of either of them being at fault; they just can’t continue.” In 1957, shortly after The Hunters was published, Salter walked into the Pentagon and resigned his commission. He was 32.
“The Air Force,” he writes in Burning the Days, “I ate it and drank it, went in whatever weather on whatever day, talked its endless talk, climbed onto the wing to fuel the ship myself, fell into the wet sand of its beaches with sweaty others and was bitten by its flies, ignored wavering instruments, slept in dreary places, rendered it my heart.”
Unlike Connell, who meets his end in The Hunters shortly after the Casey Jones affair, Salter lived to render his heart to another lover. The writing life, no less equivocal or rigorous than that of an ace, would grant the splendor and renown Salter had hunted for in the Korean sky.