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Salter's Flight Path | The Nation

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Salter's Flight Path

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We have many male authors known for loving women, fewer known for loving men. Love that is not overtly homoerotic--resolutely heterosexual, in fact--can take on an intimacy and purity untroubled by sex, even if still troubling for its intensity, its incoherence and frequent confusion, violence or aggression, its exclusionary quality. And so it is no surprise to find it so often in novels of war, or the military. In the last half-century American practitioners of this form have included Heller and Mailer, Ward Just, Tim O'Brien and, perhaps most overlooked, James Salter, who is interested in more than the camaraderie among men in uniform but also its inverse as well, the case of the solitary, perhaps a newcomer breaking in. Here is his description of the fighter pilot Robert Cassada from his new novel of that name:

It was his beauty, of course, a beauty that no one saw--they were blind to such a thing.... 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. He was intelligent but not cerebral and could be worshipful, as in the case of airplanes.

"They" and "them" are his colleagues, the men of a fighter squadron stationed in Germany in the 1950s. The men--Dunning, Isbell, Wickenden, Godchaux, Phipps, Dumfries, Ferguson, Harlan, Grace--lead restless, incurious, exalted lives, flying every day in the skies above Western Europe, waiting for the conflict that never comes. So conflict comes from within and among the men, who are arrogant, competitive, bored, cussedly suspicious yet trusting, too. They are not alike. Major Dunning is a Southerner and former college football star; Harlan is a rustic, an overgrown farm boy. Wickenden, or "Wick the prick," Cassada's nemesis, was "born in the wrong century. The cavalry was what he was made for, riding in the dust of the Mexican border with cracked lips and a line edged into his hair from the strap of a campaign hat." Cassada is from Puerto Rico, which leads Harlan to wonder what he's doing in the US Air Force. "Puerto Rico's part of the United States," replies Godchaux.

"Since when?"

"I don't know. A long time."

"I must of missed hearing about it."

The banter may not recall Catch-22--while sharp, it is seldom witty--but Salter's particular genius is for the inexpressive man. He saves his tenderest regard for Cassada, about whom there is "an elegance...a superiority. You did not find it often." It is perhaps his gravest mistake, for to a reader with less invested in the project, Cassada is the least present, most flattened out, of all the men, the one who never steps out of the page despite being so beautiful or unforgettable as all that. Cassada, which is a revision of an early, out-of-print novel, The Arm of Flesh, should instead be titled Isbell.

In interviews Salter has dismissed The Arm of Flesh as a "failed book," and he says the same in his preface to Cassada. Admitting that the new venture might be "a mistake," he cites "the appeal of the period, the 1950s, barely a decade after the war; the place, the fighter bases of Europe; and the life itself." Cassada, then--in words that I have seen repeated in every notice--is "the book the other might have been."

I think in fact it is the same book, although better turned out for some crucial changes. The Arm of Flesh is a novel in alternating voices--seventeen altogether--some of which are hard to figure out, others appearing only briefly, even once. Several could be cut entirely, as their narrative distracts from the general thread, which is about the ordeal of two pilots (one whose radio is out) trying to make it home in terrible weather, while interspersed are episodes from lazy days on base and elsewhere. Cassada is told in the third person, but the structure is much the same--if the two books are laid side by side, one sees in Cassada a succession of loose little chapters that more or less correspond to an individual voice's narrative in The Arm of Flesh. Major Clyde is now Dunning. Lieutenant Sisse from the earlier book does not appear at all in the second. In The Arm of Flesh Cassada never speaks with his own voice. In both works his words are reported to us through the perspective of others; and so he is always at least once, often twice, removed from a reader.

"Something was usually beginning before the last thing ended." This is Isbell, and the words seem to me to be the key to the book. Cassada is a new arrival at the wing in Giebelstadt, but the rivalries, the ennui, the excitements of a life in the air, at speed, have been going on as long as men have been assembled to fight. Salter, who was a pilot himself in Korea--with the advantage, unlike many of the pilots in Cassada, of actually having seen combat--has written of this elsewhere, in his first novel, The Hunters, and in his memoir Burning the Days. A pilot, it seems, becomes obsessed with doing something remarkable, with being remembered and spoken about even after he's gone. "In the end there is a kind of illness," Salter writes in his memoir. "A feeling of inconsequence, even lightness, takes hold. It is, in a way, like the earliest days, the sense of being an outsider. Others are taking one's place, nameless others who can never know how it was." Cassada is driven relentlessly to prove himself; his immediate commander, Wickenden, thinks he has a death wish. Isbell, who grows to love Cassada, acknowledges his own part in stirring him up. "It was true [he] had sometimes opposed him. It had been essential to. It was part of the unfolding." Earlier we have learned of Isbell's mysticism, his sense of his role among the men as "biblical." "It was the task of Moses--he would take them to within sight of what was promised, but no further. To the friezes of heaven, which nobody knew were there."

In this kind of outfit, Cassada never stands a chance. It is he who is one of the pilots in trouble as they try to reach home. The other is Isbell. The bond between the two is the strangest in the book, yet critical to its success. I don't think Salter has convinced us that it is true. Isbell is decent, perceives Cassada's isolation; pencils himself in to fly with him once, on an early morning training mission over Germany. It is a matchless day, the kind fliers dream of. They hardly speak.

The earth lay immense and small beneath them, the occasional airfields white as scars. Down across the Rhine. The strings of barges, smaller than stitches. The banks of poplar. Then a city, glistening, struck by the first sun. Stuttgart. The thready streets, the spires, the world laid bare.

Afterward Isbell's body is "empty," his mind "washed clean." Cassada asks about a city they flew over, Ingolstadt. "It's not as great as it was this morning," Isbell replies.

"You could say that about everyplace," he commented.
      It was true, Isbell thought, exactly. He felt a desire to reply in kind. It was not often you found anyone who could say things.

It is worth reprinting Salter's original language from The Arm of Flesh. The speaker is Isbell:

"The whole world's like that," he said.
      A chance remark that entered my heart. I didn't know what to say. Suddenly he was not what he seemed--as wise as a schoolboy who knows sex--he was entirely different. Yes, I thought. The whole world is. And early we rise to discover the earth. I felt a sudden desire to bequeath him my dreams, to offer them up. All of the searching is only for someone who can understand them.

This seems to me rather better, nearly perfect, in fact. While terseness can suggest all the things that must remain unspoken in life, a writer striking at the essence of character must occasionally open himself up, like a pilot his engines. Earlier in the same passage, in The Arm of Flesh, we have the measure of Isbell that is stripped from its revision in Cassada--excitable, aroused, ready for risk: the risk of loving a fellow flier: "We stealthy two. Streaming like princes. Breathing like steers," he thinks while aloft. Over Stuttgart:

Watch out, Stuttgart. Watch out. We're at God's empty window. We can see everything. The thready streets. The spires. It's all apparent. We can stare through the roofs. Right into the first cups of coffee. Your warm secrets, Stuttgart. Your rumpled beds.

None of this is in Cassada. None of it says much about Cassada, but it says everything about Isbell. The end of the chapter is the same in both books, except for the following sentences from The Arm of Flesh: "He could have told me what he was going to be. I might have believed him." And later on, when the two men's mission has met its tragic end, a lengthy Isbell monologue is sharply cut, in which his obsession with Cassada again comes to the fore: "There is so much I almost told him. I can't understand why I didn't. I was waiting for something, a word that would fall, an unguarded act." Of course, there are no unguarded acts from the embattled Cassada, but more surprising is the sense--retained in Cassada--that the young pilot actually had something to say. Both versions ascribe uniqueness to him, the phrase "the sum of our destinies." Yet Cassada doesn't even pretend to understand Isbell in those moments when their communion is said to be greatest: "You amaze me, Captain.... We're talking about two different things. I don't know. I just don't understand, I guess."

In Burning the Days--the eponymous chapter of which, thirty pages long, is a true anticipation of the story told in The Arm of Flesh and Cassada--Salter invokes briefly a pilot named Cortada: "He was from Puerto Rico, small, excitable, and supremely confident. Not everyone shared his opinion of his ability--his flight commander was certain he would kill himself."

And that's it for Cortada. Another cipher, with too much in common with Cassada to be a coincidence. Salter has kept the story of both men to himself, which is why a reader turns more attentively to the lonely and appealing Captain Isbell, standing between the men and Major Dunning. It is no surprise, of course. Failing to attach ourselves to the protagonist for whom the book is named, we look elsewhere, and find our longing met in the author's substitute.

The end of Cassada is beautiful. It is only four pages. Isbell and his family are leaving Germany; they are on a train along the Rhine, his daughters rambunctious, his wife solicitous, Isbell alone with his thoughts, which include Cassada. For the first time he senses himself as the romantic figure readers have seen all along, joining the ranks of the eternals, "the failed brother, the brilliant alcoholic friend, the rejected lover, the solitary boy who scorned the dance." Isbell is Salter; and one turns to Burning the Days, where the author takes his own solitary farewell to the flying life:

When I returned to domestic life I kept something to myself, a deep attachment--deeper than anything I had known--to all that had happened. I had come very close to achieving the self that is based on the risking of everything, going where others would not go, giving what they would not give. Later I felt I had not done enough, had been too reliant, too unskilled. I had not done what I set out to do and might have done. I felt contempt for myself, not at first but as time passed, and I ceased talking about those days, as if I had never known them. But it had been a great voyage, the voyage, probably, of my life.

"I would have given anything, I remember that," Salter adds, remembering the pilot's terror ("none of it mattered"), including separation from his leader. Isbell mouths nearly those words in remembering a Cassada who "stands before him, fair-haired, his small mouth and teeth, young, unbeholden." In Burning the Days Salter recalls a beloved figure from West Point who fell in the war: "He had fallen and in that act been preserved, made untarnishable. He had not married. He had left no one...he represented the flawless and was the first of that category to disappear."

Reading Salter's memoir, or recollection, as he prefers to call it, one senses that much of his life has been a mourning. The list of the dead is long and unfolds over pages and pages--many are pilots, men Salter flew with--and it becomes easy to see what he hopes is evident from his preface to Cassada: "the fact that it was sometimes the best along with the worst pilots who got killed." All of Salter's novels--including The Hunters, A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years--are beautiful elegies in which a survivor tries to go on, somehow make sense of it all, knowing the task is futile but that perhaps peace can be achieved. Why should his memoir be any different? Cassada will take a few hours to read, in which time there is exquisite suspense, some lovely sentences, a tender portrait of a hero--Isbell, I still believe, not Cassada--and a lot of shoptalk about flying. But the flying talk is better, more exactly described and sustained, more rapturous--"exalted," to use a favorite Salter word--in Burning the Days, and the memoir has the advantage of tracking the two held-apart strands of Salter's emotional life--the chaste love of men, the unsatiable desire for women--more closely than is possible for a book about fighter pilots. The following sentence sounds like Isbell recalling Cassada, but in fact it's Salter standing in the wreckage of all who have died: "You are surviving, more than surviving: their days have been inscribed on yours."

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