- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 5, 2005


By James Salter

Edited by Jessica Benton and William Benton

Shoemaker & Hoard, $24, 176 pages


At a small airport in Delaware sits a tiny, decrepit airplane. It lists to one side on stubby

landing gear, mechanical guts drooping from its belly. Despite a big jet intake and rakishly swept wing, it is hard to imagine this toy-like craft hurting anyone except the pilot foolhardy enough to fly it.

But James Salter has the power, vividly on display in his latest novel, “Gods of Tin: The Flying Years,” to make you see this forlorn MiG-15 for what it once was, scourge of the skies, a killing machine that gave U.S. pilots fits in the Korean War. Look at its open nose and, instead of a home for nesting birds, you imagine a rapacious snout, gulping air for a screaming jet, ringed with fire from three cannons spitting lead through the stratosphere.

With “Gods of Tin,” Mr. Salter returns to the formative experience of his life, his service as an Air Force fighter pilot in the decade following the Second World War, especially the 100 combat sorties he flew in F-86 Sabers over Korea in 1952.

“Gods of Tin” is not a fully original work, but blends pieces of Mr. Salter’s memoir “Burning the Days” with portions from his novels “Cassada” and “The Hunters” with previously unpublished entries from his journal such as this: “18 March 1952. The most terrible moment must be when the great, empty maw of a MIG slips in behind you, staying there while you turn as hard as you can. You can hear nothing, cannot think, your head is jammed down into your shoulders by the Gs and you strain to look behind you, pulling for your life.”

Or this fragment from April 30, 1952, about being attacked by MiG-15s in a swirling dogfight five miles above the earth: “Their noses lit up as they sailed around behind us like toys on a string … . My heart was pounding, and at the same time it was as if I were watching it all from above. Behind us they had the scent of the kill, they could see the strikes; nothing would dislodge them. I was in panic, but also calm, as if observing from some higher, safer place … . It was like being held by a python — the least relinquished space, it constricts to hold. We were being crushed in boundless air.”

Widely acclaimed as one of America’s best prose stylists, Mr. Salter’s writing is as smooth as a perfectly flown loop, as powerful as a jet at full afterburner. As with all skilled writers, less is always more with Mr. Salter, who describes life-altering, even life-ending, moments in brief, beautiful passages that would spur lesser writers to spill gallons of ink without adding an iota to the tale.

“Gods of Tin” takes the reader into the crucible of the writer’s life, when he was immersed in flying and an Air Force career. These were things he loved and that would mark him forever, but which he eventually abandoned, at great personal anguish, for a writing career.

The journal entries scattered throughout “Gods of Tin” give a direct look into the soul of the writer growing within, as Mr. Salter passes through West Point, Army flying school, assignments in the Pacific, combat in Korea and peacetime missions in Europe.

The title, chosen from Mr. Salter’s description of the Army trainers he flew, fits perfectly. It also describes Mr. Salter and his young colleagues, one moment soaring like Hermes through the sky, the next a stain on a Korean mountainside or a forest in France, eternally intertwined with the fragments of their aircraft.

Even though men dreamed for millennia about flight, its achievement and ongoing refinement have brought forth too few pilots able to articulate its wonder, beauty or terror. Mr. Salter’s work is technically true without the nerdiness that burdens so much aviation writing and beautiful without the gaffes sometimes made by non-aviators.

He is often compared, rightly so, with Saint-Exupery, rare examples of men who loved flight and language and had the incredible talent to serve both. Two others are Lindburgh and Gann.

But a large part of “Gods of Tin,” and this is true of all Mr. Salter’s works, goes beyond aviation into the realm of pilot as warrior-poet. He is unsurpassed in his descriptions of what drives young men to leave the earth — dangerous enough at the beginning of the jet age — and then risk everything to kill each other.

For those who have never been in aerial combat, which is, safe to say, most of us, you come to believe he’s telling it right because of the way he describes common things: breathing on glass on a frigid morning, the beauty of flying over a city at night, the withering of first love.

While Mr. Salter continuously rewards lovers of language, there are special treats for pilots: tales about training, his first solo, and getting lost on a night cross-country flight as a student (and barely walking away from the crash landing). Magnificent writing about death and impending doom can be deeply compelling, and “Gods of Tin” is full of it. Flying on instruments in calm desperation, hoping the airport appears among the clouds before fuel runs out, dealing with in-flight emergencies such as a complete control failure while trying to land: These are the things that make a pilot’s pulse quicken.

Judging from the pride he placed in his ability and his wonderful descriptions of it, formation flying was one of Mr. Salter’s favorite things. Here’s an example: “In formation with Minish one day, coming back from a mission, I on his wing —without a word he pulled up and did an Immelmann, I as close as you can get, then another and another, then some loops and rolls, two or three away from me, all in hot silence, I had not budged a foot, the two of us together, not a word exchanged, like secret lovers in some apartment on a burning afternoon.”

It is hard to top that. Although his fighter-jock days are long gone, Mr. Salter’s flying ability was as formidable as his writing skills. If there is anything to criticize in “Gods of Tin,” it is that it relies more on the author’s past works and less on his journal entries.

That’s a small price to pay, considering how skillfully editors Jessica and William Benton have woven those passages through the fabric of the new material. To that extent, they deserve much of the credit for what readers will think of this book. But the journal entries are so good — especially for those who cringe at their own mangled attempts to keep a journal — that one would like to see more of them.

Ron Laurenzo is a charter pilot and freelance journalist who lives in the Washington, D.C. area.

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