James Salter’s novel The Hunters (Harpers, 1956) is the best novel about fighter pilots I’ve read. It’s the only novel about fighter pilots I’ve read. Set in the Korean War, focused on a pilot named Cleve Connell, it describes the lives of the American pilots in the conflict. Connell comes to the war with a promising record, so much so that he’s made the commanding officer in his flight wing, but he finds it difficult to succeed in the war. He finally bags one plane, a kill, but other pilots surpass his record, and ultimately he comes to believe that other officers see him as a “safe” pilot, one who doesn’t take risks. Long periods of waiting stand between missions, and actual encounters with the enemy are brief. Success or failure depends on sharp eyesight, luck, and skill. The novel follows the development of Connell’s character as he confronts his growing lack of success and the possibility that he lacks these needed elements.
Social interactions among pilots take up much of the book. One’s social standing depends on success in the air. Connell becomes especially fixated on a new and younger pilot named Ed Pell who, he thinks, puts other pilots at risk in his quest for kills. He’s ambitious, eager to please his superiors, willing (Connell suspects) to bend the truth. Yet he is, after all, a success while others like Connell are not. Connell at first blames his lack of success on bad luck, but he does have an uncanny knack for flying missions where nothing happens. He grows increasingly jealous of Pell, resentful of his superiors and fellow officers. He becomes defensive, provokes arguments, and complains.
Connell defines himself by his success as a pilot. As his sense of failure grows, he becomes isolated and empty. In the end, he takes risks that he probably shouldn’t have.
Although there are moments when the characteristics of a “first novel” become apparent (occasional overwriting; one pilot’s unhappy fate is repeatedly hinted at), in general The Hunters is a tightly focused exploration of a topic most readers know little about. The fact that Salter himself was a U. S. Air Force fighter pilot in the Korean War suggests that it may provide an accurate account.