From the start I was all in and could not put the book down, though it begins simply enough with the weather.
-- “A winter night, black and frozen, was moving over Japan, over the choppy waters to the east . . . Cleve stood at the window, looking out.” --
Cleve is a fighter pilot, a captain, awaiting orders to Korea. Once there, he must wait some more before seeing combat. There are assignments to be made and in-country check flights to complete. Throughout, he listens as the other pilots talk about killing. Killing means shooting down MiGs. That is their job and their obsession, and they proceed with the single-minded precision of assassins.
The story never ventures beyond Cleve’s war. It takes place entirely upon his base and battlefield (a field of sky), or in the bars and hotels that provide him and his fellows with occasional entertainments, but Salter plummets the depths of their confines right down to their souls.
It is war story as metaphor for the personal battles by which a man saves or loses his own soul. And without lapsing into cliché or pedantry, it becomes a morality play about promise and the fulfillment of promise, and what it’s like to be on the brink of last chance.
Friends on the outside were always asking why he stayed in (the air force), or telling him he was wasting himself. He had never been able to give an answer . . . It was a secret life, lived alone. One thing he was sure of: this was the end for him. He had known it before he came. He was thirty-one, not too old, certainly; but it would not be long. His eyes weren’t good enough anymore. With an athlete, the legs failed first. With a fighter pilot, it was the eyes . . . . He had reached the point, too, where a sense of lost time weighed on him. There was a constant counting of tomorrows he had once been so prodigal with.
The measure of success is the same for every fighter pilot: five kills, the magic number that makes a pilot an Ace. Cleve enters the Korean War a stellar flyer but without a kill to his name. As with every destiny or calling, his success will depend upon a mix of cards dealt and choices made, and in the end, Salter is saying -- despite this world where winning is all – it really does matter how you play the game.
It’s a classical sort of story, pitting good-guy Cleve against his own shortcomings and misgivings as well as a nemesis, a charming but ruthless upstart lieutenant by the name of Pell.
Daily, hourly, building up after every mission, during the talks with DeLeo, the evenings in the club, the nights in bed, running through the mind like a stream through the earth, cutting a path for itself, increasing in intensity, growing, dominating everything he did on the major plane of life, Cleve hated Pell. He hated him in a way that allowed no other emotion. It seemed he was born to, and that he had done it from the earliest days of his life, before he ever knew him, before he even existed. Of all the absolutes, Pell was the archetype, confronting him with the unreality and diabolical force of a medieval play, the deathlike, grinning angel risen to claim the very souls of men. When he dwelt upon that, Cleve felt the cool touch of fear. There was no way out. He knew that if Pell were to win, he himself could not survive.
Salter masters both story and language; I’d consider the book worth reading for language alone, the above excerpt being an example of why, but the story is on par. For a reader contemplating the prospect of a last chance or failed promise, it may assume, as it did for me, qualities of myth. I’ll not give away the ending except to say that if you're willing to allow irony and paradox, it makes a compelling case for hope.