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Gods of Tin: The Flying Years

Gods of Tin: The Flying Years by James Salter, edited and introduced by Jessica Benton and William Benton. Counterpoint Press, 2004, 150 pp.

James Salter’s Gods of Tin is a compilation of two works of fiction (The Hunters [Harper, 1956] and Cassada [Counterpoint, 2000]), a memoir (Burning the Days [Picador, 2007]), and a personal journal—all by the author. Relating Salter’s experiences as a Korean War–era F-86 Sabre fighter pilot (with one MiG-15 kill), the book traces both his and his fictional characters’ various flying assignments around the globe. Editors Jessica and William Benton weave the four sources together chronologically, separating them with artistic symbols and dividing the narrative into four sections to encapsulate the author’s major periods of flying: the beginning (cadet pilot training), the post–World War II Air Force, the Korean War, and post–Korean War Europe.

Written by a combat-proven aviator, which gives the book a measure of validity, the flying passages are vivid. At times Salter fills them with metaphorical detail that reads like poetry, drawing the reader into the cockpit: “Gathering speed, they moved down the runway together. It was the highest moment of confidence forever renewed upon taking off, the soaring of spirit” (p. 98). At other times, he writes in a piercing, staccato style, bringing the reader into the split-second decision-making process of fighting MiGs over Korea: “24 June 1952. Left the briefing nervous. Dressed, flight briefing. Finally we were off. North in ominous silence” (italics in original) (p. 99). Although this switching of styles demonstrates the author’s skill as a writer, it fails to produce a smooth, uniform piece of literature—the result of cutting and pasting excerpts from multiple books.

Since two of the book’s sources are novels, I would classify Gods of Tin as fiction. Disappointingly, it’s challenging at best—and close to impossible at times—to distinguish between the fictional and nonfictional passages. For readers hoping to discover the exhilaration and occasional terror of flight, this issue won’t matter. For those looking for a more autobiographical work, the book falls flat. Read individually, the excerpts are interesting—often engrossing; however, character development often suffers at the hands of the editors’ cutting and pasting.

Without a doubt, James Salter is a talented writer. Nevertheless, Gods of Tin is far from being his best effort. In fact, it appears to be more the work of the editors who cobbled it together. Readers who prefer an engaging story about the life-and-death struggles over the jet-filled skies of Korea should read The Hunters. Even though it’s a relatively quick and easy read, Gods of Tin misses the mark and certainly does not live up to the quality of Salter’s other works.

Lt Col Daniel J. Simonsen, USAF, Retired

Ruston, Louisiana

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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