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CASSADA by James Salter


by James Salter

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2001
ISBN: 1-887178-89-9
Publisher: Counterpoint

Salter’s earliest (and nearly forgotten) two novels dealt with Air Force pilots—and now, in the literary version of a rescue mission, he has “entirely rewritten” the second one, his long-out-of-print The Arm of Flesh (1961).

Renamed Cassada, after its main character, the story centers on life in the 44th Fighter Squadron, stationed in Germany in 1955. The wars are over, so these F-86 pilots don’t have much to do other than fly exercise missions, drink at the Officers’ Club, and occasionally explore Munich. Into this virile, restless society, where pilots trust their wingmen with their lives, enters a wide-eyed newcomer, Cassada, who annoys everyone from the start: he’s afraid of caffeine, he can’t shoot straight, and he spills champagne on the commander’s wife. It also doesn’t help that, despite his naive charm, he’s a slightly petulant, reckless character who some consider a liability in the sky. Salter (most recently, Burning the Days, 1997, etc.), himself a former Air Force pilot, employs a fairly standard new-guy-in-town storyline, relying heavily on terse and occasionally flat dialogue to depict the conflicts in the squadron. More striking than his characterizations are the realistic observations of Air Force life—the younger men’s disappointment at not having a chance to see combat; the fact that good pilots die in accidents more often than bad ones; the abundance of weirdly memorable aeronautical terms. But these details, while vivid, don’t by themselves stir dramatic interest. Only in the final third do things get going, as two pilots repeatedly attempt to land through hazardous clouds. In these last chapters, Salter's most compelling character—the villainous weather—comes to the fore, and the author finally releases some verbal tension in a handful of breathtaking passages.

An instructive portrait of the flying life, but one that requires some patience to enjoy.