The Hunters is James Salter’s first novel. It’s a moody novel, the mood is dark. Cleve Connell is one of a squadron of fighter pilots stationed at Kimpo Air Base during the Korean War. Their mission is to take on the North Korean MIGs.
There are endless days of rain, the missions are grounded, tedious days of boredom.
They watched the sky through dismal days. It was never blue. It was like a layer of grief. Almost unnoticed because it brought no change…The weather remained sullen. The rain fell drearily from swollen skies. It seemed as everlasting as the surf.
On other days the MIGs do not appear, they fly back to base, a wasted mission. Cleve is alone, trapped with a group of pilots who view him as a has-been. His vision is not what it used to be, his confidence is eroded and he is unlucky.
Open eyed on his cot, he suffered through the darkness. Then, more than at any other time, there was the constant feeling that he was being consumed, drained: and he did not know the extent of his reserves.
As his tour draws to a close, he and his wing-man Hunter fly well beyond the Yalu River, they remain in the area too long, and start back low on fuel. Cleve spots 4 MIGs, one of which is the dangerous “Casey Jones.” They follow him, Casey tries an impossible diving maneuver, Cleve somehow follows, shoots him down with a burst of his cannons.
…he had met and conquered a legend…victorious at last and feeling as little a desire to live as he had ever known.
He and Hunter run out of fuel, they try to glide back to base, Cleve makes it, but Hunter doesn’t, dies in crashing.
But Cleve’s camera failed to function, there is no way to confirm the kill. Cleve responds in a way he never imagined.
I can confirm it. Hunter got him…the sweeping magnanimity that accompanies triumph, but, as soon as he said the words, he realized there were no other that would have made it right.
Two missions later, a new wing-man loses sight of Cleve who does not return to base.
Death could be slighted or even ignored close by; but when the time came to meet it unexpectedly, no man could find it in himself not to cry silently or aloud for just one more reprieve to keep the world from ending.
The Hunters is exciting, tense, clouded by distress at Cleve’s plight. It also anticipates the many novels and short stories Salter would later write. The notes for the novel were written while he was serving as a fighter pilot in the Korean War. After it was published, he resigned from the Air Force to become a writer.