Those Fearless Fighter Pilots, That Lovely, Lapidary Prose

Cassada , by James Salter. Counterpoint, 208 pages, $25.

“Exquisite macho”–you’d think it would be an oxymoron, or at the very least involve a hideously uncomfortable contortion. But James Salter, fighter pilot turned literary novelist, famous for his “rare” and “ravishing” prose, pulls it off with élan, with impeccable style, hardly hinting at the brute force all that elegance requires of him. Remember how Hemingway defined “guts”? “Grace under pressure.” Mr. Salter’s tough-guy stuff is soft to the touch, and whatever it costs him to get it out on the page (he hasn’t written a new novel in more than 20 years), it’s no sweat to read. Smooth as silk. But strong, of course: This impossibly sheer fabric can parachute you safely to the inevitably sad but stoic, stiff-upper-lip end of the story. (Only a wimp would bail out early, skipping the dour, manly moral.)

Cassada is not new; Mr. Salter first wrote it 40 years ago and published it as his second novel, The Arm of Flesh (1961) Like his first, The Hunters , it’s about camaraderie and competition among fighter pilots, one man’s quest for glory and the elegiac ache of gorgeous sentences. Cassada is a “new version” of The Arm of Flesh , which, Mr. Salter tells us in a brief foreword, “had serious faults and needed to be rewritten completely.” Well, it no longer has serious faults. Of its kind, it’s nearly perfect.

The story is simple but cleverly told: A talented young pilot, Lieutenant Cassada, joins the 44th fighter squadron at a U.S. Air Force base in Germany about a decade after the end of World War II. Cassada dreams of heroism, but he’s too late for the aerial combat in Korea, the “fierce fights along the Yalu” (where a young James Salter, flying an F-86 just like the pilots of the 44th, shot down one MIG and damaged another). Eagerly, Cassada looks for other ways to prove himself, to earn “a greater authenticity.” He yearns “to make a name for himself, become known,” and to be accepted as an equal by the most respected pilots. But he discovers that the “squadron was like a large family with a history he was not really part of.” He remains an outsider, even though Isbell, the operations officer, No. 2 in the squadron’s chain of command, begins to take an interest in him. Isbell detects in Cassada some spark of difference: “There was an elegance about him, a superiority. You did not find it often.” (Anyone hear the loud echo of Papa Hemingway at his most insufferable?)

Cut into the narrative of frustrated initiation are short, dramatic scenes from the novel’s climactic episode, the return to the base–in very bad weather–of two jets, low on fuel and hampered by equipment failure. This crisis provides the novel with just the right tug of suspense and a cunning, dependable architecture. Will the two planes beat the odds and land safely? Will Cassada come into his own? The two questions, separate and then suddenly, urgently related, converge most satisfactorily.

Lieutenant Cassada fervently believes that a fighter pilot should be a god among men; he aspires to a kind of divinity–but he’s just like the rest of us, a fallible, flesh-and-blood creature. Mr. Salter dramatizes the would-be hero’s dilemma in one deft scene, the immediate sequel to Cassada’s impressively successful first flight: “Someone came around the side of Maintenance, arms held out oddly like a shirt on a clothesline. The flying suit, clinging and wet, was sheathed against his legs and chest. It was Cassada. He’d gotten sick to his stomach while in the air and in the midst of things had thrown up, catching it in one of his flying gloves but afterwards it spilled. He’d been in the latrine trying to wash himself off, but the smell was still there.” That smell is a whiff of mortality.

There is only ever one goal for the dedicated romantic: glory. But there are distractions. Like women. Officers’ wives, waitresses, nightclub singers, assorted Fräuleins –those will do for the other pilots. Cassada, being pure, knows immediately when he meets the “one woman” who would suit his exalted self-image. “You have the face I’ve been looking for,” he tells her. Of course, she is not available, which sad fact he discovers right away: “The one woman in Munich, he thought, the one woman in all that time. He felt sick.” Exquisite macho–with a tummy ache.

Towards the end of the novel, there’s a hymn to Cassada’s “beauty”–here the delicate balance is tipped, and Mr. Salter spills mush: “By beauty, nothing obvious is meant. It was an aspect of the unquenchable, of the martyr, but this quality had its physical accompaniment. His shoulders were luminous, his body male but not hard, his hair disobedient. Few of them had seen him naked, not that he concealed himself or was modest but like some animal come to drink he was solitary and unboisterous.” Exquisite macho dyed a deep purple.

Excess is not Mr. Salter’s style; he prefers sleek and spare and sharp-edged. When he allows himself a little lyricism, he keeps it crisp. His sentences are almost always clean and mellifluous. At their best they look effortless, somehow inevitable, though occasionally I sense a stubborn dignity (pride in all that hard work carefully disguised), and where the Hemingway patina is too thickly encrusted, the prose sounds weirdly dated. But mostly the writing is assured and effective. Here’s Cassada’s antipathetic flight commander: “When he spoke, everything was final. It was like someone beating a carpet, flat, heavy blows.” And here’s an incidental descriptive flourish: “In the early morning, before daylight, Isbell walked alone through the hangar past the planes being repaired, broken in two by the mechanics, the lines hanging loose, bleeding black into drip pans.”

The story of this novel’s resurrection is far more hopeful than the drama played out in the 44th squadron. The Arm of Flesh , which Mr. Salter calls “a failed book,” has been given a fresh life. You can’t do the same for a fighter pilot. James Salter clearly admires the nobility of futile effort, heroism in the face of certain failure. But the work he did on Cassada points in a different direction: It’s a success well earned, an effort rewarded.

Adam Begley is books editor of The Observer.

Those Fearless Fighter Pilots, That Lovely, Lapidary Prose