James Salter’s primary concerns are the achievement of perfection and the integrity of the individual. He is more interested in how people live than in what success they achieve. Salter’s novels stress that whatever perfection is achieved is in any case transitory. Age or death destroys skills and whatever grace his characters discover or embody. This reality does not mean that the struggle is useless; it is part of the human being’s glory to struggle for something higher in the face of imperfect human nature.
The Hunters, Salter’s first novel, draws on his Air Force experience. The hero is Cleve Saville, a veteran pilot who has come to Korea to fly Air Force jets against the Russian MIGs. As an experienced pilot, Cleve is also called upon to train an unsuccessful flight of young pilots. Cleve’s first conflict is with Lieutenant Sheedy. Sheedy is good at self-promotion; he makes a number of dubious claims about shooting down Russian MIGs. His wingman is very cooperative, supporting claims that cannot be confirmed. The commander of the squadron, Colonel Dutch Imil, is eager to accept these dubious claims because they enhance his reputation and that of the group. The conflict comes to a head when Cleve overhears Sheedy rewriting the description of a kill in order to get the Distinguished Flying Cross rather than a lesser Air Medal. This represents a violation of the code of the warrior by which Cleve lives: What is important is to strive for excellence within the group; any attempt to grab glory, deserved or not, is unacceptable. True glory is, for Cleve, within oneself.
In Korea Cleve meets an old friend, Captain Abbot, who was a very successful pilot in World War II but has now lost his nerve. He claims malfunctions with his plane and scrubs nearly every mission. As a result, Abbot is sent to Japan to an office job, where he can retain his rank if not his integrity. Cleve is sympathetic toward Abbot, but he knows that he cannot give him the courage he needs to continue to be a fighter pilot; it must come from within.
Cleve works at teaching young pilots the calm professionalism that is needed in a good pilot. He becomes a father figure to all these pilots but one: Lieutenant Pell. Though Pell is only newly trained as a fighter pilot, he has great confidence. Cleve has noticed that overconfidence in Pell’s brash overtures to a Japanese woman while he waited to be shipped to Korea. Cleve reprimanded Pell at that time, but Pell had not paid much attention. The real problem comes when Pell begins to be successful in shooting down MIGs while his leader, Cleve, has yet to shoot down his first airplane. Pell’s success comes because he often leaves the formation to go after Russian airplanes on his own. Cleve reprimands him and brings the matter to Imil, but Imil refuses to do anything that would jeopardize his “kill rate.”
While Cleve is on leave in Tokyo, having an idyllic encounter with the daughter of a Japanese painter, he receives news that someone in his flight has been shot down. Upon returning, he finds that the pilot died because Pell left him unprotected and went off on his own to gain the glory of another kill. Imil, however, refuses to ground a man with five kills, an ace.
Theclimax of the book comes when Cleve shoots down the enemy’s ace, “Casey Jones,” while he and his wingman, Hunter, are very short of fuel. After this victory, Cleve barely manages to glide his airplane to a landing, but Hunter does not make it. Back at the base, Cleve is unable to support his claim of having downed Casey Jones, because the film in his plane’s camera did not run; his dead wingman was the only witness. Suddenly, Cleve reverses the situation, claiming that Hunter shot down Casey Jones and that he was a witness to it. Cleve is proud of his accomplishment but does not need the recognition that would come with such a victory. He has kept a pledge to Hunter that he would get a MIG before he left Korea; for Cleve, meeting commitments and personal integrity are more important than public glory.
Cleve dies in the last chapter, but that is really a denouement rather than a climax, for he has succeeded in living by the code of the warrior. Salter’s philosophy of heroism owes much to Ernest Hemingway. His style is also rather similar to Hemingway’s, although Salter avoids the mannerisms of the earlier writer.
Light Years is a very different novel from The Hunters, more in the tradition of Henry James or F. Scott Fitzgerald than of Hemingway. Viri is a successful architect, but he longs for a greater creative achievement; he envies such great architects as Christopher Wren and Stanford White, but he realizes that their accomplishments are beyond him. His wife, Nedra, is the center of the marriage: She arranges the meals, parties, and outings that make their life outwardly enviable. There always seems to be an amusing friend at hand—Viri and Nedra are hardly ever alone—and the superb food and wine the couple and their friends consume are described in loving detail, as is Viri and Nedra’s stately Victorian house on the Hudson River.
When Nedra must visit her dying father in Altoona, Pennsylvania, she observes there the broken windows and empty warehouses that signify a very different lifestyle. She does sincerely grieve at the death of her father, but her call to Viri is telling: She bemoans the badly designed hospitals of the area. Clearly,...
(The entire section is 2260 words.)