The Hunters

By James Salter
342 pp
Rating: 5.5

I whipped through The Hunters in two days, which is maybe fitting for a novel about jet fighters. The jets in question are flown by pilots in the Korean War. Salter was himself a fighter pilot. I mention the speed that I read the book with because it may partially account for the sense of whiplash I experienced coming out of it. I’m inclined to say that the ending, in some important respects, didn’t work; at least as it relates to the main character’s narrative arc.

The Hunters is an entertaining novel, particularly if you’re interested in the subject matter, less so if you aren’t. It holds up ok after 60 years. There are some affecting passages and poignant reflections on the experiences of the pilots fighting their communist counterparts, mostly in the vicinity of the Yalu River.

The combat, however, is somewhat secondary to the story. More than being a story about fighting communists in the sky, The Hunters concerns itself with the hierarchies and their effects on the American pilots back at their base.

Salter was not much of a success either commercially or critically, but he has his fans among his fellow writers. If you poke around a bit you see respectable writers calling The Hunters one of the best books about flying ever written.

Geoff Dyer wrote an appraisal of the novel a few years ago when Salter died for The Paris Review, and praised this passage:

“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.”

I like “strange, dreamy rain” and “silver and wavering”, and the fuel and the vapor streaming from them are also nice. “Going down like thin cries fading in silence” is pretty effective, although the shift to an audio simile comes out of left field and is perhaps a bit clumsy, if one were inclined to quibble. It’s a visually arresting detail for sure, but I think the description of the moment is merely OK. A better writer might have plopped the tanks into more of a visual backdrop.

Perhaps more representative is this passage, in which the narrator is describing how the group of fighter pilots that the protagonist, Cleve, is going to begin overseeing has not wracked up any downed MiGs:

“That the flight had no claims, though, they were all conscious of. Robey’s, in the room adjoining, was heavy with victories, eight altogether, Robey’s five and three others. On the other side was Nolan’s flight with four. Nolan had two of them. The contrast was marked for a flight between them with none. It was understood that Cleve had been installed to change this.

He finished putting his things away as well as he could and sat down on his cot. He was satisfied. He had a feeling of liking them all and of being liked. It was a rich infusion.”

“It was a rich infusion” sounds like a McCarthy-era TV commercial for instant coffee that for some reason was written as a flashback. Weird syntax, flat verbs, this is sad writing.

Fairly frequently the writing in The Hunters feels leaden or muddled. Salter is at his worst when he is trying hard to be a good writer.

Salter’s life was much more remarkable than his literary output. This New Yorker profile is a great read irrespective of your feelings about or knowledge of Salter.

While I seem to have focused mainly on the novel’s shortcomings, I did enjoy it and would recommend it if you’re in the market for a quick, entertaining, and occasionally inspired tale of long-forgotten aerial gunfights. It works pretty well as a document of its time and place.