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The Hunters: A Novel
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38 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on April 18, 2000
Format: Paperback
I am re-reading The Hunters by James Salter for about the fourth or fifth time, and continue to be amazed at its density and subtlety, and the truth of its story. Almost nothing in the history of air warfare has been written that compares with it for quality or maturity. It is the best psychological profile on the character of the fighter pilot and especially the mammoth ego of the fighter ace, ie, one who can claim 5 or more victories in aerial combat. Readers may want to compare The Hunters with Salter's more recent memoir Burning The Days, since the latter book includes the non-fiction story of Salter's own F-86 Sabre tour in Korea in an equally evocative way, but written more than 40 years after the event. The Hunters is an essential read for anyone interested in the history of air warfare, the Korean War, and the personality of the fighter pilot. It is an excellent work of high literary standards, that foreshadowed the achievements of Salter's non-aviation books that came later.
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32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on September 28, 2002
Format: Paperback
Much has already been said here about the precision of Salter's crisp, clean style. It's Hemingway over ice with a splash of bitters. If you love language, you will read every word. Much also has been said about this book as an accurate portrayal of flying and a great novel of warfare.
What I would add to all that is how "The Hunters" is a fascinating account of the dynamics within a group of highly trained men who engage in a high-risk occupation. The central character Cleve begins the novel as a well respected flyer, a cut above the rest, and admired by the less experienced men around him. Fiercely independent and reserved, he has a somewhat aloof personal style that makes him all the more respected and even idolized.
Enter a younger, hotshot flyer, brash and egotistical, the opposite of Cleve in every respect -- and, we are led to believe, somewhat less than honorable -- who quickly establishes himself as an equal to Cleve, determined to be seen by the commanding officers as superior. The rest of the novel is a psychological study of "grace under pressure" and the eventual failure of Cleve to maintain his position in this hierarchy of men, where the respect of others is the reason for being.
This drama of the individual against a closed social order that first praises and then abandons him is compelling from beginning to end. I recommend the book not only to readers looking for well-written accounts of air warfare. Its nuanced portrayal of the shifting dynamics among men in an all-male setting makes it excellent material for gender studies, as well. For another Salter book that picks up some of these same themes and writes about them just as eloquently, read his novel "Solo Faces."
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon December 24, 2000
Format: Paperback
This was the first of several excellent novels (Solo Faces, Light Years, A Sport and A Pastime) by this author. Based on his own experience as a fighter pilot in Korea, The Hunters is the story of an American pilot who wishes to become an ace. Written in direct, deceptively simple, and precise language, The Hunters is an examination of the demands of wartime viewed through the prism of this relatively solitary pursuit. Salter conveys the experience of the Korean war and dog-fighting beautifully. Unlike most war novels, this book is a psychological novel preoccupied primarily with moral issues. The key questions are what is the appropriate way to live, and its obverse question, what is the appropriate way to die? This is the type of novel that Hemingway tried to write in For Whom The Bell Tolls. Where Hemingway failed, Salter succeeds. This deceptively modest book is much better than most of the serious American literature published over the last 50 years.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on October 9, 1997
Format: Hardcover
The Hunters , James Salter's first novel, just reissued in revised edition by Counterpoint Press, is arguably the best aviation war novel ever written. It is also noteworthy as an historical document of the cold war which will be instructive to many modern readers. Although it presents the fighter pilots of its day in full swashbuckle, the novel's intense drama comes from the internal tension of individuals reacting to strange and hostile environments and events. Yet it is a very good read.
The Hunters is a first-rate novel about a war written by a warrior. If Hemingway and Stephen Crane became famous by writing about war, neither logged any real time as warriors. James Salter, on the other hand, actually talked the talk, walked the walk, and lived the life of the jet fighter pilot in combat when even the name, jet fighter, was itself new.
Salter knew and flew with some of the major Aces of his day as well as other pilots who would achieve international fame later such as future Astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Virgil Grissom. So it is important for the reader to remember that James Salter not only wrote of those who had the right stuff, he had it himself. He was still flying jets when he wrote The Hunters.. Its successful publication made it possible for him to give up his Air Force career to become a full-time writer.The Hunters explores how it was to fight the first of our string of bureaucratized wars emerging from the Cold War. Although the Korean War (1950-1954) was euphemisticallly named a Conflict, for the American fighter pilots there, outnumbered six to one by the enemy, it was a very real war.
The novel begins with Captain Cleve Connell's assignment to the preeminent F-86 interceptor wing of the Korean War to fly the required hundred missions. This wing, consisting of several F-86 Sabre squadrons had the task of protecting our bombers, fighter-bombers, and ground forces from Communist aerial attack by maintaining control of the skies. Every day the F-86s went out organized in flights of four to seek out the technologically superior invading MiG-15s. Each flight was made up of two elements each consisting of a flight leader, or shooter, and his wingman. Flight integrity-sticking together-is paramount to making the system work. The leader becomes mere meat without his wingman's defensive support. The most sacrosanct rule of all is-A wingman never leaves his leader.Regulations aside, what makes the system really work is the unspoken pact of honor which every pilot makes with his fellow pilots. Cleve symbolizes the experienced flight leader as a man of virtue who adheres strictly to the honor-bound rules; he reaches moral crisis when his wingman, Pell, violates the pact by going off on his own without announcement to pick up easy kills leaving Cleve undefended before the enemy.
Aerial combat in Korea was even more demanding of its pilots than earlier wars. The jet engine's speed and its ability to climb quickly to altitudes never before attainable extended the battlefield to that frigid, no man's land in the stratosphere nine miles above the earth. High altitude became a formidable opponent in itself. Consider the impact bailing out at 40,000 feet. No pressure suits existed then and every pilot knew that lack of oxygen could make him brain dead in minutes, or that he would freeze to death if he opened his parachute too soon if he wasn't killed by the chute's violent opening shock. Reliable statistics show that the generation of pilots flying these early jets faced malfunction rates, with all the attendent problems, approximately twenty times higher than the modern F-16 pilot is required to face.The dangers were compounded by the crippling rules of engagement imposed by our government; our pilots were forced to fight at maximum distances from their home airfields, whiile denied the right to attack MiGs, or their bases, in North Korea. These conditions made it common for the Sabre Jets to run out of fuel over a hundred miles from home. This meant that pilot's often found themselves strapped to a seven ton glider which, with a flamed-out engine, had lost most of its desire to fly. Yet the wingman's code of honor called for additional heroics as pilots sticking together saved lives and airplanes, sometimes through the wingman's using one of his own wings to keep the flamed-out aircraft in the air.
Because the Korean War was unpopular, Washington looked for ways to give it positive spin. Since the F-86s outscored the MiGs ten to one, aerial victories became staple news items and Aces came to be lionized. Given this it is no surprise that commanders sometimes squinted when pilots broke discipline to illegally seek out MiGs solo. Too often such breaches resulted in immediate public adulation by the press instead of courts-martial the regulations called for. The novel turns on this point. Cleve, a flight leader, is denied Acehood because he is an honorable man; he flies by the rules. He loyally breaks off pursuit of personal glory to go to the assistance of other pilots in trouble. But his brash wingman Pell is troubled by no similar scruples. When Pell leaves Cleve in the lurch to sneak off and get an easy kill, the MiGs almost destroy him. Yet Pell, now a MiG killer, is protected from military justice and ironically, exalted by the wing commander who is also the chief judge. Eventually Pell gains international renown as a MiG killer and Cleve is unjustly relegated to non-person status.
Salter portrays this intense drama in a very quiet, economic, yet finely evocative prose. For a first novel, his structure is exceptionally coherent, as one might expect of a novel, but James Salter admits he conceived the book all-of-a-piece before he wrote it. More important, the novel foreshadows the skills he will develop in selecting the exact word to make an incident tellingly poignant. It also foreshadows his subtle ability through a phrase, to create gripping visual images in the readers eye.In contrast to life in war, the novel also provides insights into Japanese life and culture in the post-war mid 50s. To reduce combat fatigue, fighter pilots are sent to Japan after every six weeks of aerial combat for R&R (Relaxation and Rehabilitation). Through these vignettes Salter portrays with great sensitivity the warrior sans sabre as at his most vulnerable in the clash of western perception and eastern culture. Not without irony we see these young warriors of middle America cast out of a monastic life in Korea react to the voluptuously baroque fleshpots of Japan.
Salter's hero, Cleve Connell escapes from the flesh pits to devote his R&R time to learning as many of the nuances of Japanese culture as he can from a Japanese artist and his teenage daughter. Standing alone as a delicate description of a relationship between an older man and a young woman, this chapter points to Salter's future ability as a mature writer to portray women with exceptional sensitivity and completeness.
One of the unavoidable handicaps of attempting a novel like The Hunters derives from the difficulty in separating fiction from the reality upon which it is based. Salter only knew several wing commanders and only a few bushwhackers like Pell. So historians, as well as those who have walked the walk, will continue to find it difficult to deny the urge to link up Salter characters with real-life counterparts. Suffice it to say here, however, that the men usually identified as Salter's villains or semi-villains in this book, have played out real lives in which their sins have more or less caught up with them. So the novel has about it some clairvoyancy.
Again, most readers will find that The Hunters, reads like a very first rate adventure tale, which it is; others will be pleased that it reads like a first rate novel, which it also is. These two elements combined make The Hunters a must for most book lover's list.
George Thomas is a former Air Force fighter pilot and test pilot. He, like Salter, flew the F-86 and a number of other jet fighters.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on July 25, 2005
Format: Paperback
I read "Hunters" a year ago and am currently reading "Cassada", Salter's other flying novel. As good as his writing is, and as gripping the situations he describes, what earns this book 5 stars is the way Salter's images persist in the mind. They are so crisp and seem so right that you can't shake them. I'll never fly an F-86, but I think I've got a good idea what the view from up there would have been like.

Highly recommended.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on June 16, 1998
Format: Hardcover
"The Hunters:" What is your ambition?
I read "The Hunters" reluctantly after one of my best friends urged me to for several months. Having been a pilot in the military for much of my life, and also being the son of a Korean war aviator, I simply wasn't ready to waste time on another mediocre war novel about a subject and an experience that that could never really escape my psyche. How could I have been so wrong......
Salter's novel examines the fundamental issue of one man's life- the very reason we live and what we hope to be remembered for. Simply and beautifully phrased by Eiko, a Japanese girl befriended by the lead character, Cleve Connell, that issue is: "What is your ambition?" Connell's response, developed over pages 132-135, will twist the heart of any person who has ever been obsessed with an irrational dream, a mission in life, an ambition:
'There was a long pause. They lay in the cool grass, side by side, unwilling to do anything that might change it.
"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. Now an ambition had been forced on him, but he hesitated. The innocence of a girl could have no values by which to judge him. What's your ambition?
"Well, here (Korea, during the war) is this place where the fighter pilots live, and if you shoot down five planes you join a group, a core of heroes. Nothing less can do it."
"You've done that?"
"Oh, no. I've shot down one."
"A man like yourself, perhaps," she said.
"I hope so. I hope it was no frightened boy. I want this to be the end, anyway. And when you make your last appearance, before whatever audience you have, you want it to be your real performance, to say, somehow, remember me for this."
"The Hunters&! quot; is a fine piece of literature, and a sad and moving story about one man's ambition, offset clearly by the realities of war and human imperfection. I can't think of a more realistic, precise, and beautifully written novel that I have read in a long time.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on January 13, 2002
Format: Paperback
I actually discovered this book while going through the reviews of a customer whose opinion seemed to be often similar to my own. He praised the book so much I decided to get a copy. I also was drawn to it because I teach English in Korea and thought it might shed some light on the historical experiences of the soldiers that fought here during the war. It doesn't really do this. The book could be set almost anywhere because almost all the action takes place in the sky with American pilots going against faceless and mostly nameless MIGs. But it did surprise me in two ways: first, it was written so beautifully and nearly flawlessly that I was stunned that I'd never heard of it or it's writer(How did this book remain in obscurity when it's author is an obvious prose master? Nothing in the book seems forced, the sentences are seamless, the similes perfectly matched.); second, for one of the few times since my childhood I found myself racing through a book's pages to get to its end(I've often heard people say that such and such a book is a page turner, but it usually turns out to be nonsense; however, The Hunters IS a page turner. You're swept up in its pages and carried along to the book's completion. You respond to the characters the way you would real people. You also get to experience vicariously the incredible feeling of battle in the sky with a MIG.)
The simplicity of this book and at the same time it's grandeur rings truer than more stylized, experimental works, and exposes the futility of lesser authors who build their stories on cheap gimmicks, shock and window dressing. James Salter puts all of his ability into telling his story. That he succeeds so well, demonstrates his enormous talent. We all too often forget that there can be just as much truth in a simple parable as a Finnegan's Wake.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on March 17, 2006
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
This book had been sitting on my shelf a while and may have gone unread forever, but I checked the Amazon reviews and found it to have received only praise all across the board. Well, I just finished reading the book, and can now add my own commendation. The simple name and the comic-book-like jet fighter cover art (on my 48 year old copy) would lead one to believe this is a crude shoot 'em up Korean War adventure yarn rather than a fine piece of literature. I found it to be fine literature. All the more remarkable due to the story being imbedded in the environment of jet fighter warfare. The story is about one man's, Captain Cleve Saville's, arrival and tour of combat duty at a bleak Air Force fighter base in Korea. He enjoys a short vacation to Tokyo, with a little romance, and otherwise spends his time flying combat missions, or mostly waiting anxiously between flights. Salter writes stunning and beautiful descriptive passages. Sometimes the metaphor is almost overwhelming and leaves the reader looking for some plain syntax. But it comes along. Salter (who has been there) masterfully describes the interpersonal dynamic among men living and risking together under the various stesses. There is intricate insight into the inner ambitions and competitions among the pilots. The bravado and also the fear. The reader feels the bitter Korean winter, and the blistering heat sitting in the cockpit on a summertime runway. The all too rare flight time is magic. Clearly the cool blue sky made a tremendous impression on Salter during his combat flying days. He loved it and writes about it so we can all feel it. Most of the air mission time was boring and Salter is candid about it and spends little time with it. There are some moments in combat that are so intense that I found them almost disconcerting and had to pace myself through them. Saville endures both interpersonal and internal conflict throughout the story. I felt the tale was on the express route toward a big climax, but was not ready for what it was (and it was multiple). The reader is safe in Salter's hands. He delivers. The novel is short. Absolutely no reason not to read it. Highly recommended.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on July 13, 2001
Format: Paperback
James Salter quit fighting MIGS and left the Air Force to write `The Hunters', a novel set during the Korean War. The writer's authority breaths life into every sentence and the authenticity of his story is irrefutable. That's not the reason for recommending it however. This book should be read because it is that rare gem, an ambitious war novel that is literary without being pretentious. Originally written in 1956 and out of print for 40 years, it stands the test of time on a par with Remarque's `All Quiet on the Western Front' or Heller's `Catch-22'.
`The Hunters' chronicles Cleve Saville's quest to become an ace. He goes to war for the first time as an experienced pilot at the age of 35. Being a good pilot isn't enough to absolve him of self-doubt as he struggles with the issues of command, mortality and situational ethics. Fighting MIGS is easy compared to fighting time. And like all heros, Cleve has an Achilles Heel that can get him killed in the blink of an eye. While Cleve confronts existential issues familiar to any Hemingway hero, this is not a book about doing the right thing despite the consequences. It's a story about how men refuse to acknowledge alternatives. Ahab must find the white whale.
Cleve pursues his Moby, a MIG Driver known as Casey Jones, across the skies of Korea. There is plenty of jet combat and the climactic duel is exciting and well rendered, but `The Hunters' is hardly a techno-thriller a la Clancy. While Clancy is Mr. Outside, constantly relaying hardware speeds and feeds, Salter writes from the inside out. For example, we know precisely what Cleve is seeing, hearing and thinking, but Salter never identifies the aircraft Cleve is flying (it's an F-86 Sabre, natch).
Salter's streamlined prose compares favorably to Hemingway. He is as austere with his words as an Emil (ME-109E) pilot husbanding cannon ammunition. Precision and efficiency are the keys to his success. The book is written so smoothly that I was tempted to read my 1958 Bantam paperback edition (184 taut pages) in one sitting. If you feel similarly compelled, I suggest making a second pass to appreciate the nuances missed while skimming the surface. Salter camouflages his craft adroitly. Your observations and enjoyment will be much more acute at open cockpit speeds.
Pre-avionics, pre-missile, jet combat over Korea has more in common with biplane duels than the massive air sieges of the Second World War. The distance from the Somme to the Yalu is less than you might think. Small numbers of aircraft employ a new technology (turbine engines) to contest the skies over fixed boundary lines. From a fighter pilot's perspective, Korea feels closer to Lanoe Hawker and Douai than Curtis LeMay and Douhet. Heck, both wars were even trench bound. Not surprisingly then, when reading `The Hunters' two novels depicting aerial combat in the First World War spring to mind: Ernest K. Gann's `In the Company of Eagles' and Jack D. Hunter's `The Blue Max' (1965). Combat is the stratosphere may seem cold and impersonal but the passions and fears expressed during debriefing remain familiar, despite Korea's higher closing speeds.
`The Hunters' and `In the Company of Eagles' share a rivalry between key characters as their central theme but the similarity ends there. Gann builds his book around a French squadron leader stalking a German pilot who killed his friend. This unlikely scenario gives rise to mawkish sentiment, and melodramatic behavior in contrast to the immediacy of Cleve's rivalry with a rising star (Pell) in his own unit. Cleve and Pell maneuver within the intimate confines of their squadron firing a few well airmed verbal salvos. The hits tell because Salter adheres to the admonition that "revenge is a dish best served cold."
`The Blue Max' reveals the ruthless rise and rot of Bruno Stachel as he pursues the coveted decoration and its attendant fame. On his way to the top, Stachel fights everybody; particularly Heidemann, his flight leader. Hunter tells essentially the same tale as Salter, but from the antagonist's point of view. Stachel and Pell, opportunistic louts on the make, leverage their celebrity to undermine traditional martial virtues represented by Heidemann and Saville. Although the books' plots play out similarly, the opposing nature of their respective protagonists demands a very different tone in each. `The Blue Max' feels desperate, bitter and corrupt as Germany loses the war. `The Hunters' on the other hand is resigned, bittersweet and transcendent: in keeping with stalemated peace of Korea. Interestingly, Hollywood embraced both these novels. Dick Powell's 20th Century-Fox, 1957, Robert Mitchum/Robert Wagner effort virtually disregards Salter's source material, but `The Blue Max' starring George Peppard doesn't stray as far afield. Aircraft aficionados appreciate the authentic footage in both, screenplays be damned.
Salter never wrote another war story and has only a handful of books to his credit over the last four plus decades. One in particular, `A Sport and A Pastime', earned him the title of `Ace' in the pantheon on contemporary literary heros. Ever the perfectionist, Salter sees `The Hunters' as very humble beginnings despite its many fine qualities. He was ambivalent about its return to print. Standards that high are as unreasonable as keeping a fine novel out of print for 40 years, and as uncompromising as insisting that virtue be its own reward.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on October 12, 2002
Format: Paperback
I ran across this book by accident; and am glad I did.
After a few pages, I was hooked, and quickly identified with the main character, Cleve. Salters description of the characters is great, without a lot of detail.

During the flight scenes, I felt as if I were in the cockpit, in combat, flying the Sabre. I was as disappointed as Cleve was, when someone else got a "kill" and he didn't. I had a gnawing in my gut almost the entire book, which I could not put down and read in one sitting.

I have read well over 100 books about combat and this ranks up there in my top 5. Highly recomended if you want to face some MIG's over North Korea!
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