As a young man, he flew. He had always wanted to be a fighter pilot; then, during training, he crashed into a house, and he flew transport for six years until he became a fighter pilot after all. He flew an F-86 mostly. He wasn’t one of the greats, he once said, he wasn’t an ace, but he was “in the show.” He was twenty, in 1945, when he graduated from West Point and took his commission in the United States Army Air Force. That date might make you think he missed the war, but there is always another war, and his was Korea. He flew a hundred combat missions. You can read about it in The Hunters, his first novel: the barracks life, the waiting for action, then taking off, hunting the sky over the Yalu River for Soviet MIGs, the dogfights, the hunger for a kill, coming back to base on the last drop of gas—or not coming back. The book was published in 1957, and with that, after twelve years as a pilot, he resigned from the Air Force to be a writer. The pilot was called, as he had been from birth, James Horowitz. The writer called himself James Salter. He was handsome, and he had style. He lived in Europe. His prose announced itself with a high modernist elegance. He made language spare and lush all at once—strong feelings made stronger by abbreviation, intense physicality haunted by a whiff of metaphysics: for everything that is described, even more is evoked.
more from Philip Gourevitch at Threepenny Review here.