When James Salter died in 2015, the consensus obituary went like this (my summary):
A great writer’s writer passed away, much esteemed by his fellow writers, but little known by the general public despite the success of his first novel, the autobiographical The Hunters, which was adapted to the cinema with Robert Mitchum in the starring role of fighter pilot during the Korean War. After The Hunters, Salter specialized in precious, carefully-written novels about nothing much, where his style shone bright. There may be people out there who read one of those all the way through: if so, congrats on being an elite reader.
What was left unsaid in all of this is the extent to which Salter made a fool of himself in the process of becoming that terrible thing, a “writer’s writer,” and ended up betraying not only his talent but the best of his work.
A good way to illustrate Salter’s problem is a comparison between his best-known novel, the aforementioned The Hunters, and Light Years, a later novel where he was trying hard to fill on the role others wanted him to take.
The Hunters tells a simple, and yet complicated story. If novels are divided between those that try to reach complex truths through simple tales, and those that try to reach simple truths through complicated plots, The Hunters is resolutely in the former camp. We have the story of Cleve, Salter’s alter ego, a biggish shot of a pilot who arrives in Korea amid great expectations of fame and glory and “kills”: the downing of enemy planes.
Early in the novel, Salter sets up both character and circumstances beautifully, in a single page:
Of course, things don’t turn up so well for Cleve. As he fails to produce kills, largely because of bad luck and unforeseen circumstances, his anxious superiors turn to glorify others who bring up the business, regardless of the situation. Cleve wants to play fair, within the rules, he wants to be a team player; he wants to be the good guy. But the selfish guys who put others at risk just to get the kills are the ones who are celebrated.
Cleve, an aging pilot who, like Salter himself, barely missed World War II, starts to feel like an outsider. He’s not one of the guys anymore. After a while, there are whispers that he doesn’t have the right stuff. The portrait of fake comraderie, high pressure and results-oriented management rings a bell even to those of us who have never actually flown fighter planes. Mind-states, landscapes and weather all come together in pages such as this one:
The Hunters provides a detailed portrait of male aggression: how it’s used, manipulated, contained, displayed, promoted, celebrated, crushed. Fighter pilots are a great, extreme example of the same conditions I have seen in business offices, factories, harvesting fields. And yet, I have myself been closest to a real-life environment such as that described in the novel when I played a space-fighter online game called Eve Online. No shit.
Eve Online, about which I wrote several times for the Wall Street Journal, is a game in which tens of thousands of space pilots share a universe where they essentially seek to kill each other in any way possible. It resembles the movie The Purge in that, whenever one is outside of a space station, the possibility of killing or being killed is almost always there.
As in The Hunters, “kills” are the supreme measure of manhood in Eve Online. I have well over a hundred, which makes me an average pilot, at best (keeping in mind my losses too); there are people out there who have managed to kill thousands of enemies over years and years of game-playing, often taking hours to get a single kill; just why anyone would waste one’s time to that extent is hard to understand unless one reads The Hunters.
Cleve is not a bad pilot, despite his lack of kills. Towards the end of the novel, he finally comes across “Casey Jones,” a feared Russian ace with a distinctive Mig-15, who some suspected to be a bit of an urban legend. After a brilliantly-described, thrilling fight, Cleve shoots Casey down. But both him and his wingman, Hunter, are low on fuel.
Following common practice, they glide all the way back to the airbase, chests swelling with pride (I do know the feeling, even in Eve Online one feels that way on the way back, having taken enemies down in a fair or foul fight). Cleve manages to land his plane but Hunter crash-lands. When he has to debrief his superiors about the important, career-making kill, he finds that his front camera didn’t work, so the kill is not recorded. Hunter died, so he can’t confirm it either. Urged by the despicable kill-collector Pell, who both despises and fears Cleve and would like to stay the base’s superstar, the sleazy colonel Imil doesn’t really believe Cleve:
“There’s no one to confirm it now, either,” Pell said.
“No,” Imil agreed. He decided quickly. That was certain enough. “There’s not.”
Cleve looked at them, one by one. Nothing was real. He heard a short, insane cough of contempt leave his lips. He did not know what he was thinking, only that he was far removed, farther than he had ever believed possible.
“Oh, yes, there is,” he said blindly.
“I can confirm it.” He drew a sudden breath. “Hunter got him.”
It had come almost subconsciously. Malice had brought it, and protest, and the sweeping magnanimity that accompanies triumph, but, as soon as he said the words, he realized there were no others that would have made it right.
The Hunters, Salter’s first novel, was to be his best. He was always a great novelist, but his work from that point on flagged; he decided to become a style-polisher, instead of a story-teller. I discuss how that worked out, using Salter’s novel Light Years as an example, in a followup post.