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The Hunters by James Salter
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The Hunters (1956)

by James Salter

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James Salter's debut novel about fighter pilots in Korea during the Korean War, of which he was one. While the aviation and battle scenes are vividly rendered, that's not what the book is about. This is about men in competition, within their teams and with the enemy. The social dynamics of this kind of person are so well captured. The competition, the politics, the loves & hates, the self-doubt. The writing is everywhere very vivid and evocative.

""What is your ambition?" she asked after a while. Cleve closed his eyes. There had been many ambitions, all of them true at the time. They were scattered behind him like the ashes of old campfires, though he had warmed himself at every one of them"

or
"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."

For a first novel (or for that matter any novel), this is a great, insightful novel with amazing writing. ( )
  viking2917 | Feb 6, 2018 |
Published in 1956, The Hunters is the debut novel of James Salter and is a story about American fighter pilots during the Korean War. Based on his own experiences flying combat missions in Korea, this is a chilling tale of men under extreme pressure to survive in a perilous situation but also to perform and make confirmed “kills”.

Captain Cleve Cornell arrives in Korea as an honored World War II pilot. His superior officer has high expectations that Cleve will lead his flight to success and produce results. Cleve feels the pressure but is sure that he will be able to get the job done successfully, but as time goes by, his group seems to always to be in the wrong place or simply miss out on the fights that do occur. Cleve’s self-confidence and his reputation suffer. The author totally draws the reader in this tale as he describes the missions, the pilot’s philosophy, and the jealousies and competition that each pilot feels to make a kill and build his reputation.

I found The Hunters to be an excellent novel about war, in particular men who engage in aerial combat. This emotionally complex story was elevated by the author’s outstanding writing which gave a sense of immediacy and reality to this powerful narrative. ( )
  DeltaQueen50 | Mar 13, 2017 |
The Hunters is an engrossing pseudo-autobiographical novel about American fighter pilots in the Korean War, written by a fighter pilot veteran of that war. Its plot is rather straightforward; one can easily predict how events will pan out if one pays close-enough attention. Clichés abound, right down to the Red Baron-esque nemesis, but this is true of many war stories. I am reminded of a quote by military historian Stephen Ambrose, who wrote in The Victors that these are the clichés of war stories precisely because they are true. The Hunters remains undiminished in my eyes, for it is the way in which James Salter tells the story that makes it so enthralling. His descriptions of aerial combat are gripping, and he provides a number of evocative similes to describe emotions and surroundings. Written in a sparse prose often described as Hemingway-esque, I find this comparison largely erroneous, even though The Hunters in large parts reminded me of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. Salter is a fair bit denser in his descriptive writing than Hemingway, yet still retains a peculiar brevity that allowed me to breeze through the book.

Above all, what endeared me to the book was its well-drawn characters; each of them has their failings and their redemptive qualities. Cleve Connell, ostensibly the protagonist, is honest and a man of integrity, but plagued with anxieties and self-doubt. 'Doc' Pell, in many ways the antagonist, is cocky and recklessly selfish but a fantastic fighter pilot. Colonel Imil, their commander, is courageous and well-loved by his men, yet willing to choose favourites from among them and indulges their recklessness. Salter draws an impressively nuanced portrait of the squadron's internal politics that keeps one enthralled even when there is no combat to behold. I also enjoyed the candour with which Salter allows us into Connell's mind, expertly describing his anxieties and his resolve to overcome them. This eloquent battle with self-doubt and uncertainty is just as intoxicating and gripping as the aerial battles, and at its conclusion rather life-affirming. Without giving away any spoilers, Connell's idea that the way to go out is in an instant, reaching for that highest one of the stars and then falling away, disappearing, against the earth" (pg. 116) becomes even more profound at the novel's conclusion. The message is that the way to live life is by resolving not to succumb to one's own anxieties; even though you may be weighed down by those doubts, you must still strive for achievement. It is a lesson that one needs to be reminded of from time to time, especially when you are feeling low." ( )
  MikeFutcher | Jun 3, 2016 |
I read about Salter in a book review and decided to give "The Hunters" a try. This was a surprisingly good book. I opened it not expecting much, and found myself riveted by the protagonist's anxiety about proving his worth as a flier. Well worth a read. ( )
  oparaxenos | Nov 27, 2015 |
At the close of his career, James Salter seems to be getting another look from modern readers. I don't know if "The Hunters" qualifies as a lost classic, but it's a well-crafted novel and well worth a reader's time. In many ways, its an atypical war book. It's easy to predict how the book's plot will unfold, but there's also a lot in here about the boredom that often comes with war: the novel's pilots often encounter empty skies on their missions, and their aerial combats are often over in a matter of minutes. Salter's can't exactly be called a cynic, but his descriptions of the complex, punishing social hierarchy that governs the relationships between his characters seem to have little to do with traditional views of wartime heroism. Though the pilots in "The Hunters" never seem to question the logic behind the Korean War, the author makes it clear that merit and fame do not always go to the most deserving among them. Salter's description of the cloistered, competitive life at a South Korean airbase reminded me a little of Melville's careful description of the pecking order on the Pequod. The emotions that predominate in this novel are loneliness and anxiety, which seems fitting enough for a kind of warfare in which enemies are barely glimpsed and men fly -- and usually die -- in relative isolation. Still, Salter's descriptions of the experience of flying and fighting are beautiful, and probably could only have been written by a former pilot. Not an uplifting novel, but recommended nonetheless. ( )
1 vote TheAmpersand | Jun 30, 2014 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0375703926, Paperback)

With his stirring, rapturous first novel--originally published in 1956 --James Salter established himself as the most electrifying prose stylist since Hemingway. Four decades later, it is clear that he also fashioned the most enduring fiction ever about aerial warfare.

Captain Cleve Connell arrives in Korea with a single goal: to become an ace, one of that elite fraternity of jet pilots who have downed five MIGs. But as his fellow airmen rack up kill after kill--sometimes under dubious circumstances--Cleve's luck runs bad. Other pilots question his guts. Cleve comes to question himself. And then in one icy instant 40,000 feet above the Yalu River, his luck changes forever. Filled with courage and despair, eerie beauty and corrosive rivalry, The Hunters is a landmark in the literature of war.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:20 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"Captain Cleve Connell arrives in Korea with a single goal: to become an ace, one of that elite fraternity of jet pilots who have downed five MIGs. But as his fellow airmen rack up kill after kill--sometimes under dubious circumstances--Cleve's luck runs bad. Other pilots question his guts. Cleve comes to question himself. And then in one icy instant 40,000 feet above the Yalu River, his luck changes forever. Filled with courage and despair, eerie beauty and corrosive rivalry, The Hunters is a landmark in the literature of war" -- publisher website (June 2007).… (more)

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