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The Hunters: A Novel Paperback – July 27, 1999
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From Library Journal
Salter's 1956 fighter pilot novel stands out as a literary endeavor in a genre dominated by cheap adventure yarns. Salter goes beyond the usual gung-ho fighter jock glitz to present the story of Capt. Cleve Connell, whose intentions of becoming an ace are thwarted by enemy pilots with plans of their own.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
"The contemporary writer most admired and envied by other writers. . . . He can . . . break your heart with a sentence."
--Washington Post Book World
"Anyone under forty may not appreciate how profoundly Salter influenced my generation. [He] created the finest work ever to appear in print--ever--about men who fly and fight." --Robert F. Dorr, author of F-86 Sabre
Darkly romantic. . .beautifully composed. . .a brilliant war novel." --Chicago Tribune
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The protagonist of THE HUNTERS is the straight-shooting Captain Cleve Connell, who is considered an outstanding F-86 fighter pilot. He has flown fighters for seven years and has “… a certain renown” and “a reputation based on achievement.” Before reporting to his Korean unit, Cleve seems to believe that his excellence, which came easily to him, will be the foundation for attaining the status of an ace.
Cleve is only five missions into his tour when he begins to realize that some pilots and senior officers game the system. On this mission, a pilot with four prior kills—Robey—claims another kill, which his wingman confirms only after being pressured by a colonel. “You’re not trying to remember, Dawes. Think. Think of your career, Dawes.” At the same time, other pilots are skeptical. “Did he really get this one for a change?” one experienced pilot asks. “I won’t say he didn’t get them… but two of them were pretty doubtful.”
A few days after this notorious mission, Cleve is made a flight commander, which means he leads a squad of eight pilots. Then, Cleve reaches nine missions and Second Lieutenant Pell is assigned to his group. Pell is an ambitious and unscrupulous gambler who quickly sees how the game is played. He is a good pilot with great eyesight. But Pell also leaves other pilots undefended if he sees a kill opportunity. He positions undefended pilots as bait for MiGs, which he then swoops down to destroy. And he distorts his own vulnerability, pleading for immediate support, when he sees another pilot nearing a kill.
In THE HUNTERS, the lying Robey may be underserving of his success and a travesty created by senior officers. But Pell takes underserving success to the next level, where he demonstrates what an evil person can and will do to achieve success in a corrupt system. At the same time, Salter does show that skill and professionalism are necessary to perform truly great feats, even though the consequences of these feats may be tragic.
THE HUNTERS is Salter’s first novel and it shows, mostly in the first half of the book, when Salter tries for a profundity. “It was still all adventure, as exciting as love, as frightening.” “He seemed to be above the confusion of life, as if he had been commissioned to spend his own in undisturbed judgment of the world about him, protected always by a mandate from the gods.”
But the craft in the second half of this novel is wonderful, with Salter managing to infuse his writing with profundity without straining for it. This is the Salter who is widely praised for his great sentences. “Being in a squadron was a digest of life. You were a child when you joined. There was endless opportunity and everything was new. Gradually, almost unknowingly, the days of painful learning and delight were over; you achieved maturity; and then suddenly you were old, with new faces and relationships that were difficult to recognize rising up quickly all around you, until you found yourself practically unwelcome in the midst of them…”
Rounded up and recommended.
James Salter’s prose is tight, not a word wasted, often poetic and incandescent. The Hunters is a book about men in the 1950s in difficult situations and therefore might not appeal to women. But not many can deny that Salter writes with a precision seldom seen in contemporary literature.
Jeffrey Penn May, author of Roobala Take Me Home, Where the River Splits, Cynthia and the Blue Cat’s Last Meow, No Teacher Left Standing, Eight Billion Steps: My Impossible Quest for Cancer Comedy, Finding Your Fiction, and more.
I discovered later there was a hollywood film of the same title loosely based on the story, so I watched it too. The movie was disappointing and I only mention it here in hopes that anyone who saw it might be more entertained by reading the novel.
To quote from another aviation novel, "The Wild Blue," "The more things change, the more they stay the same." This is true of Salter's prose offering up the touch, feel, and smell of being based in Korea. Salter brings the reader into the cockpit of a first generation jet fighter with extraordinary authenticity. He managed to recreate the tension and frustration that comes from the boredom every pilot experiences while waiting for the next combat mission - dangerous as they tend to be. The mood is nicely captured in the following 3rd person narration of main character, Cleve Connell's thoughts: "The worst part, he knew, was what lay ahead, the empty hours of melancholy that would not be filled until he flew again." Then finally, "...it becomes, I don't know, a refuge. The sky is the godlike place. If you fly it alone, it can be everything."
From the mind and imagination of a deep thinker engaged in the solitary art of aerial combat, Salter's reputation for putting strings of beauty together with words is indeed something to behold. As he narrates Connell's view enroute to "Mig Alley" north along the Yalu River, he takes the reader along for the ride: "Shreds of cirrus hung in the air, like icicles along the edge of a roof." He goes on to describe the rush of the landscape, "Now he seemed to be crossing it with great speed, as if running with the current of time."
Some passages that might tantalize perspective readers with the feel for the changing seasons on the Korean peninsula read as follows: "The rain fell drearily from swollen skies. It seemed as everlasting as surf." This story is so packed with splendid writing, I'll share one more favorite: "They crossed the Haeju Peninsula and then the edge of an unblemished sea that lay like a sheet of foil in the sunlight."
No review of a piece of aviation writing would be complete without validating the credibility of the author. As a former military jet pilot, I really admired the author's ability to put truth into the advice offered by the more experienced Connell, to one of the new replacement pilots who stated he was trying not to use the throttle so much. Cleve tells him to "use it all the way from the gear warning to the fire warning light if you have to. That's what it's there for. Only use it in time, not when it's too late. Make the throttle your intention, not your reaction." Though the technicality of the description (range of the throttle's movement between gear warning and fire warning) may be different in modern fighters, the advice Cleve offered, reads well. It also evoked the kind of tension and anxiety a newbie might be experiencing before launching into the big adventure of combat for the first time.
I loved reading this book and will probably read it again, not for the story so much as for the beauty of the words the author used to describe every detail. Any reader who's ever flown a plane should read it.