Tom's Reviews > The Hunters

The Hunters by James Salter
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The most apolitical war novel I've ever read. No character reflects on the nature of war or his role in it, for better or worse. What they do reflect on, endlessly, obessively, is the competition for wracking up the most kills and attaining ace status. Think of Mamet's salesmen in "Glengarry, Glennross" gone to war. This lack of political dimension is not necessarily a bad thing, but in this case it creates a kind of claustrophobic insularity in mood and focus that enevelops the characters like a smothering fog, especially Cleve Connell, who almost never reveals anything about his personal life, his life before Korea, his hopes for life after Korea, or even if he will survive. Other than the rather cliche revelation that he comes from a family with history of military service, we learn little about his interior life. The guy doesn't even think of what he misses about life back home (and having served 2 1/2 years overseas in the Army, I can testify that soldiers, at least enlisted men, think of little else than home; but then, as I recall, officers with career ambitions were a different species altogether). But this void doesn't appear to be some odd homage to vintage Hemingway stoicism, which usually hints at unseen depths of character; Salter just doesn't give his character much depth, although he makes a stab in this direction through Cleve's platonic "affair" with a Japanese girl while on leave. But that development trickles off into irrelevance.
However, that narrow focus is also what give this short novel its power. Salter vividly captures the dangerous rivalries that infect the pilots, and at times the frustrated drive for accomplishment takes on the dread of an existential quest. But in the end, Salter is more interested in upholding the purity of dedication to mission than breaking open the cracks in that purity. Nothing wrong with that; just something one doesn't find too often in war Lit. Despite a few hints in that direction, Salter's vision is far removed from that of, say, Dino Buzzati's "The Tarter Steppe," a novel that exposes of the emptiness of military ambition with quiet devastation.
Despite all of these misgivings, let me emphasize that Salter is a good story-teller and marvelous, even breath-taking stylist -- with a rare combination of spareness and lyricism: “Toward the final test and winnowing they flew together, and though a man on the ground could neither see nor hear them, specks of metal moving through a prehistoric sky, contaminating an ocean of air with only their presence, electrifying the heavens. Cleve felt a distilled fulfillment. For these moments, no price could be too high.”

This passage captures both the strengths and flaws of this book: Salter's evocative prose and his protagonist's sturdy but narrow virtues.

Overall, I liked this book enough that at some point I might be tempted to read "Cassada," Salter's other novel about military pilots.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
May 1, 2010 – Finished Reading
September 2, 2010 – Shelved
September 2, 2010 – Shelved as: american-novel

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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Edward I thought your comments were very perceptive about the narrow focus of the novel giving THE HUNTERS its power. Cleve's obsession with flying is almost monastic in its focus, never mind about life outside the "monastery". The Japanese girl episode was puzzling to me, but you may be right - it was a stab, not too successful, at character depth.

message 2: by Tom (new) - rated it 3 stars

Tom Thanks for taking time to comment, Edward, I appreciate it. Funny you should comment at this time, as I've been thinking about Salter lately -- probably because of reviews re his new novel -- and reminding myself to read "Cassada" sooner than later. I also find myself regretting having donated The Hunters when I stream-lined my library last year in prep for selling house and moving. I'd like to be able to dip back into and reread some of those marvelous passages. Ah, well, the inevitable consequence of that age-old triangular tangle, of space, matter, and mobility.

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