Eric's Reviews > The Hunters

The Hunters by James Salter
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's review
Apr 18, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: favorites, shouldreread, war
Read in May, 2011

In The Hunters chastened prose is never more than a few steps from religious lyricism. Salter will begin a scene with the naming of parts, the spare poetry of function, and wind it up with an epiphany, or talk of grace, or comparison of a preternaturally skilled MIG driver to “a heavy angel come down to test the valor of men.” It makes me think of the abrupt gaudiness of nose art on a sleek aluminum fuselage.


The Hunters (1956, rev. ed. 1997) is Salter’s first novel, published the year he resigned from the Air Force, chose writing over flying. The 1958 movie, with Robert Mitchum starring, goes with a blond love interest (the future Mrs. Sammy Davis Jr., May Britt) instead of the book’s Tokyo prostitutes, and tacks on a sequence in which Mitchum and the alcoholic husband of his love interest are shot down over North Korea; with pistols drawn, they must evade the Commie Hordes while Working Out Their Differences…pretty hilarious given the comparative inactivity, lulling routine and spacey contemplativeness of Salter’s novel. (The Hunters is the novel Joan Didion would have written, had she flown fighter jets in the Korean War.) I’ve read that the exacting Salter thinks Light Years (1975) his first fully achieved work; but still, The Hunters more than brings the goods:

You lived and died alone, especially in fighters. Fighters. Somehow, despite everything, that word had not become sterile. You slipped into the hollow cockpit and strapped and plugged yourself into the machine. The canopy ground shut and sealed you off. Your oxygen, your very breath, you carried with you into the chilled vacuum, in a steel bottle. If you wanted to speak, you used the radio. You were as isolated as a deep-sea diver, only you went up, into nothing, instead of down. You were accompanied. They flew with you in heraldic patterns and fought alongside you, sometime skillfully, always at least two ships together, but they were really of no help. You were alone. At the end, there was no one you could touch. You could call out to them, as he had heard someone call out one day going down, a pitiful, pleading “Oh, Jesus!” but they could touch you not.

They flew with you in heraldic I love that! I did not want this novel to end. I'm looking forward to his memoir Burning the Days, especially the Korean chapters, as well as to everything he's written that I've not read. Salter at the controls:

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Quotes Eric Liked

James Salter
“Miyata was fluent and intelligent. Nothing was beyond his curiosity. He seemed to be above the confusion of life, as if he had been commissioned to spend his own in undisturbed judgement of the world about him, protected always by a mandate from the gods. They spoke briefly of Korea and then of the past war with the United States. Miyata had been in Japan for its entire duration and must have been deeply affected, but when he talked about it, it was without bitterness. Wars were not of his doing. He considered them almost poetically, as if they were seasons, the cruel winters of man, even though almost all the work he had done in the 1930s and early 1940s had been lost when his house was burned in the great incendiary raid of 1944. He described the night vividly, the endless hours, the bombers thundering low over the storms of fire.”
James Salter, The Hunters

Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

Oh, have you seen the new Malick? I am a fence-rider about Malick - he exasperates me in ways that make me think it's my fault.

Eric I haven't and I can't wait. I love Badlands and Days of Heaven. Thin Red Line had its moments amid lotsa mush. I found The New World unwatchable. I cling to a non-existent cosmic rule that because New World was such a joke, he's got his shit together for this new one.

message 3: by [deleted user] (last edited May 18, 2011 03:05AM) (new)

See, now some things makes sense to me. I've only seen Thin Red Line and The New World, and The New World was so whaaaaa? that I almost gave up Malick entirely. Especially because one of my close friends LOVED New World and maybe gave me a small lecture. That sort of thing makes me pointlessly obstinate.

Eric whaaaa

Hahaha yeah, that about nails it. Deliriously boring. I'm shocked you know someone who loved it. They're pretty rare. Badlands and Days of Heaven have the same voiceovers, slow shots of nature, philosophy...but with, you know, artistic discipline.

message 5: by [deleted user] (new)

Wow! Martin Sheen is like a tiny fetus in that movie!

I didn't mind the voiceovers - I thought that often worked in Thin Red Line. I had a different friend, who did her dissertation on the Jamestown cemetery & who is generally a big know it all about that time period, give me a different lecture about The New World, one that maybe involved more swearing and sputtering on about the treatment of John Rolf.

Eric I just finished a book that described the early Virginia settlements in fascinating detail, and I wondered, briefly, if new knowledge could make the movie interesting. But only briefly.

Mitchell My favorite line in this review: The Hunters is the novel Joan Didion would have written, had she flown fighter jets in the Korean War.

Eric Thanks!

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