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.
“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.”