March 29, 2011 | by Geoff Dyer
Our Spring Revel is on April 12. In anticipation of the event, The Daily is featuring a series of essays celebrating James Salter, who is being honored this year with The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize. If you’re interested in purchasing tickets to the Revel, click here.
The Hunters (1957) was Salter’s first novel and remains the most concise expression of his talents. It is based closely on his own experience as a pilot flying combat missions in Korea. The war in the air proceeds in tandem with a near civil war on the ground as the pilots vie with each other to achieve the coveted five kills that will make them aces. The conflicting demands between ensuring the safety of comrades (the “sacred” duty of the wingman) and the individual daring—recklessness even—needed to shoot down MiGs threaten to destroy the central character, Cleve Connell.
In Burning the Days Salter recalls a friend’s advising him that “the original form of storytelling is someone saying, I was there and this is what I beheld.” As soon as he began writing, Salter knew that his time as a fighter pilot would give his storytelling this elemental immediacy and power. (The magnificent climactic scene of the novel involves an incident mentioned briefly in the memoir, when two planes, out of fuel, are forced to glide back to base.) Earlier still, when he was learning to fly, Salter had fallen under the spell of the most famous writer-pilot of them all, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “it was his knowledge I admired, his wholeness of mind, more than his exploits. ... In [his] footsteps I would follow.” (This tradition—or perhaps trajectory is a better word—has recently been extended by Jed Mercurio. Part of his novel Ascent (2007), about Soviet pilots flying MiGs in Korea, can be read as a commentary on—or duel with?—Salter, whose novel, presumably, served as template and inspiration.) Cassada has at its core an event that is in some ways a reworking of the kind of crisis imaginatively depicted by Saint-Exupéry in Night Flight as two lost planes drift past their landing strip, cut off from the earth by darkness and rain clouds. The Hunters contains a direct allusion to the master, a translation of the lyricism of Wind, Sand and Stars (“Below the sea of clouds lies eternity”) into the argot of the jet age, the dawn of the right stuff: “There was a mission when they conned across seas of eternity, never catching sight of the ground except at the beginning and end.” Not that Salter is lacking in his own lyric gifts. The experience of flight, the mysteries of the sky, remain as intoxicating and magical as they were for the pilots of propeller-driven biplanes:
Suddenly Pell called out something at three o’clock. Cleve looked. He could not tell what it was at first. Far out, a strange, dreamy rain was falling, silver and wavering. It was a group of drop tanks, tumbling down from above, the fuel and vapor streaming from them. Cleve counted them at a glance. There were a dozen or more, going down like thin cries fading in silence. That many tanks meant MiGs. He searched the sky above, but saw nothing.
The movement of this passage is entirely characteristic: an inventory of the procedural dialogue of the cockpit dissolves into lyrical evocation, which is then identified and absorbed as data—to be computed, worked with, responded to. At the start of the novel, when Cleve is a passenger en route to Korea, gazing out the cabin window, Salter stresses that “his eye was the flyer’s. He saw the hostile mountains, the absence of good landmarks, and the few places flat enough to land in an emergency.” But in Cleve’s later straining to make out exactly what he is seeing in the “dreamy rain” and his failure to see the MiGs that he knows must be there, Salter hints at a potential flaw in his protagonist’s makeup. For pilots the eyes are everything: “It came down to that, time after time, who could see the farthest.” Cleve’s wingman and rival, Pell, has vision so good—“he can see a bird’s nest from forty thousand”—it amounts almost to a kind of second sight.
Everything in the novel is rendered from within the worldview and idiom of the fighter pilots (the planes are almost always referred to as ships!). It is, without question, one of the greatest flying novels ever written. However meticulously and faithfully rendered, though, flying is important not simply as an end in itself but also as a test of character, of how one reacts in the face of destiny (again there are echoes of Saint-Exupéry here). You do everything you can to control what happens, but at some point—to return to Burning the Days—you are left “facing the unalterable.” Cocooned in his cockpit, as alone “and isolated as a deep-sea diver,” the pilot achieves—or fails to—a state of grace in and through his isolation.
This is at the heart of Salter’s ethic of solitary splendor. It is part of the sheer definition of self attained by Rand, the climber-hero of his later novel Solo Faces (1979): “There is something greater than the life of the cities, greater than money and possessions; there is a manhood that can never be taken away. For this, one gives everything.”
Even here there is ambiguity, however. For Rand also basks in recognition: “A kind of distinction surrounded him, of being marked for a different life. That distinction meant everything.” It is the same with Cleve and the other pilots; their kills have to be recorded on film or vouched for by others to be verified. Cleve craves the bestowal of public acclaim that five kills will grant him. Only when that has been achieved can it be rejected; until then failure stalks him like a curse. On leave in Tokyo, Cleve explains to a girl he has met that “truth doesn’t always come from truthful men.” In a defining twist he ultimately achieves his moment of truth through a kind of falsehood; having “searched the whole heavens for his destiny and godliness” he ends up finding them “on earth.” His triumph lies in attaining what he has most sought and then voluntarily renouncing it—and all the acclaim that should have gone with it.
In this light it is difficult not to see the fictionalized version of Salter’s flying experience in The Hunters as a prophetic allegory of his subsequent career as a writer. Cleve longs to succeed, both in the hermetic isolation of the cockpit and through the admiration of his peers. When Salter finished his 1975 novel Light Years he “wanted glory” and craved praise, “widespread praise.” To an extent this was achieved in America. In Britain the novel was published thanks to the intervention of Graham Greene, whose “opinion of it was higher than the English critics’.” This is not just gossipy irrelevance, for in Light Years one of Salter’s characters addresses the issue nakedly: “‘The thing I would really like to know is,’ Nedra said, ‘must fame be a part of greatness?’” It is the question that haunted Cleve—and it is a question that brings Nedra’s husband, Viri, to an appalling realization of his own insufficiency: “Fame was not only part of greatness, it was more. It was the evidence, the only proof. All the rest was nothing, in vain. He who is famous cannot fail; he has already succeeded.” On a general level this explains why Fitzgerald, with all his early success, could wallow in his later, ostensible failure. In Salter’s case it offers a dramatic and unusual instance of a writer’s work and his reputation coming into mutually illuminating adjacency.
This introduction is excerpted from Geoff Dyer’s most recent collection, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews.
See also: “The Skiing Life” by Louisa Thomas.