(WJB III - 1997)
"And Cleve was at lonely peace with himself. He felt as if he had finally passed from a youth into a real maturity, one in which he soberly realized the price that had to be paid to abide by the ideals that were once so bright and compelling. The reckoning was dear; but for all that they had cost him, he held them even more fiercely. He had nothing frivolous remaining to believe in then, only an obdurate residue more precious than a handful of diamonds."
(James Salter, "The Hunters", ch. 25)
This is an un-sung classic of American literature: Hemingway was a piker by comparison. My amazing sister-in-law, the one who my youngest brother had the good sense to marry, gave me this book for Christmas, and I'll never forget it. It goes straight to my 1% list of must-haves.
The title might be recognizable: it was made into an awful film in '58 or so, starring Robert Mitchum and Robert Wagner cast as USAF fighter pilots in Korea. In typical Hollywood fashion, though, the story got pissed away through the difference between literature and film and a mediocre director's inability to pay attention to what's important.
Salter nailed it all, in a mere 233 pages. He writes with a sweetly terse eye for life and language; not a single word over the top and not one word short of the last brush-stroke of a Michelangelo. He takes up the subject of men doing their best, middling, and worst to be men to and among each other in the singularly demanding arena of air combat, and he captures the essence of every daylight swagger and midnight fear with a clarity which represents the very thing for which the novel form is designed.
One thing which makes this book so wonderful now is its appearance after decades of being out of print. This is like finding a lost treasure, and even more than obviously, because the author's grasp exceeds the subject matter. There are themes here which transcend the story: the desperate competition of aerial warfare is a sub-set, an incidental consequence of essentials which motivate all of mankind wherever they go and whatever they do. Lieutenant Pell is recognizable as a distant relative to a certain Lying Bastard who some of us love to hate, at least until his final grope at something like redemption. Captain Cleve Connell understands that his little corner of the Korean War is a bit more than two-sided during flights up to the Yalu River; if Pell wins, then he cannot survive. The antagonism here is not between Connell and the MiGs, but between the hope of ability and justice set against blind fortune and cynical opportunism.
"The Hunters", originally published in 1956 by Harper & Brothers, now published by Counterpoint (1997) in an edition revised by the author.
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