The Magazine

Salter Flies Again

James Salter, America's best least-known novelist

Feb 5, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 20 • By DAVID GELERNTER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

James Salter's novel Cassada tells a story that rushes toward you with the cool hellishness of a treetopskimming jet fighter, then fills the sky overhead and is gone, leaving an unforgettable rustle of thunder uncoiling behind. It is a brilliant novel that in some ways resembles The Great Gatsby: a short book of lyrical tautness, not an extra syllable anywhere, concerning an outsider who is undone by a selfless act. It is about honor, aspiration, and nobility.

Cassada has to do with the spiritual meaning of technical mastery -- in particular, mastery over warplanes. Few sorts of virtuosity demand more skill, brains, and bravery. The outsider is a young fighter pilot, a Puerto Rican who joins a U.S. squadron in Germany in the 1950s. According to Salter's foreword, Cassada is a rewritten version of his second novel, The Arm of Flesh (1961), which was "largely a failure." As Salter reports in his 1997 memoir, Burning the Days: "It disappeared without a trace."

His first novel, The Hunters, had succeeded with the public and critics in 1957 and helped convince the young author to bail out of his promising Air Force career to become a full-time writer. He tells the story in Burning the Days: the child of 1930s Manhattan; then a Jew at West Point, like his father -- followed by pilot training, combat in Korea, and growing success as a career officer. After publication under a penname (his real name is Horowitz), he quit the Air Force. Years later, he is still "thinking every day of the life I had left, unable to stop recalling it or to believe in myself apart from it."

The career Salter abandoned was no routine affair. (The facts are clear despite his modesty and reserve, which give his memoir a strange tension -- the author resolved to go on with his autobiography but fighting a tendency to turn away and quit remembering.) He volunteered for pilot training, then for fighters, then for combat. He flew more than a hundred combat missions, battling MiGs along the Yalu. He never mentions his decorations or promotions, but when he is temporarily recalled to active duty during the Berlin crisis, we catch a glimpse of him as a lieutenant colonel. You would guess that he was destined for great things in the Air Force. You would guess also that Salter might concur, wistfully.

Once he was out of uniform, his artistic mastery continued to grow, but after The Hunters none of his books was much of a hit until Burning the Days. In the 1960s he became a screenwriter and director; once again early success petered out, and he went back to novels and stories. Many famous writers profess to admire him. Their blurbs decorate his paperbacks like advance funeral wreaths. But since Cassada was published several months ago, few reviews have appeared.

Cassada is a suspense story and a technical tour de force, with two narratives streaking forward simultaneously, to coalesce uncannily at the end. The story is a fantasia on the theme of trust among soldiers: its meaning and its beauty. The newcomer Lieutenant Cassada says to Captain Isbell (squadron operations officer, second in command): "If someone would only have a little confidence in me" -- and Isbell grants him that confidence. Then one afternoon he and Cassada are flying together, Cassada on Isbell's wing; they stop at Marseilles, bound for home in Germany. They find that bad weather is closing in all over Europe. It seems imprudent to go on.

Cassada lacks bad-weather flying experience but Isbell does not, and Cassada tells him to go ahead: "I can fly your wing through any of that." So they go. In transit Isbell's radio fails. Isbell drops back and follows Cassada. Back in their home skies they try a tower-guided approach in heavy weather, but they are lined up wrong; they have to go around and try again. Cassada loses Isbell in the murk. He has only one chance of finding him, but his fuel is running out. He can try for a safe landing himself, or he can look for Isbell. Naturally this is, for Cassada, no choice at all.

What was the point? Why didn't they stay on the ground until the weather cleared? In part to establish their superiority as pilots. But Isbell is wise enough to resist this kind of temptation. Then why? Because this is the story of an extended salute: a salute offered by Cassada, returned by Isbell. The military provides the field for such exercises in honor but they are by no means taken for granted, and some soldiers who figure prominently in the story admit that they don't understand them.

So it is a story of honor, virtuosity, and bravery. It is about the vulnerability of those for whom honor matters, and the invulnerability of those for whom it does not.