Author: James Salter

Publisher: Counterpoint

ISBN: 1-887178-89-9

"This novel about flying," writes James Salter in his Forward to Cassada, "is drawn from another earlier one, The Arm of Flesh, published in 1961 and largely a failure. It lay forgotten for a long time until Jack Shoemaker, the editor-in-chief of Counterpoint, suggested that it might be a companion piece to another book he had republished, The Hunters, which was my first novel." 

Once Salter reviewed The Arm of Flesh almost 40 years after its publication, he realized it had "serious faults and needed to be rewritten completely" and retitled with the name of one of the principal characters.  

Cassada is a novel about flying. Robert Cassada is a young US Air Force jet fighter pilot, fresh out of flight school, who joins a squadron in Germany in the 1950s. On his checkout flight, Grace, the lead pilot, takes him through such extreme maneuvers, Cassada throws up. But he files the aircraft. 

Back on the ground, Grace's superior asks him, "Do you know what I expect of you?" 


"No you don't. If you knew, you'd never do a stupid thing like that. What do you know about whether this man can fly or not? You don't. That's what the transition missions are for. If the major found out about this he'd take away your flight." 

"Captain, I'm sorry. It wasn't good judgement. He seemed to be doing pretty well and I just got carried away."

Cassada is in fact a terrific pilot.

Cassada is a novel about group dynamics, a group that happens to be fighter pilots. Cassada loves to fly. But for no obvious reason he doesn't fit in to the group. He's teased, and at one point he's provoked into making a bad bet, which he loses. For the most part, we don't know his thoughts, although Salter does give us a sense of the man. Here is an example. The squadron's planes are out on patrol and are told to return immediately because snow showers are closing in their field:

"Cassada, hearing it—the calls, the other formations inbound—still new to it, felt a kind of electric happiness, a surge of excitement. Their speed was building. The air was heavier and more dense as they came down, nearing the cloud tops, then skimming them. He was confident they would get back to the field and at the same time felt a nervousness; it was in his arms and legs. The radio was alive with voices. From all directions planes were coming home."

Because Salter was a US Air Force fighter pilot (he flew more than 100 combat missions in 1952 during the Korean War) and because he was was stationed in Germany and France, promoted to major, became a squadron operations officer, in line to become a squadron commander, he writes about flying and squadron life from the inside. After twelve years in the service, he quit to write full time. I think his descriptions and his dialogue are exceptional. Here are two pilots chatting:

"Looks like it's melting," Godchaux remarked. "Did you hear what Cassada said at lunch?"

"No, what?"

"He said he wanted to pack some up and send it home to his mother in a box."

Cassada had never seen snow.

"Oh, yeah? Where's he from? Alabama?"

"No, he's from Puerto Rico."

"Puerto Rico? You'd never know that from looking at him. Was he born there?"

 "I think so. His father died or they got divorced. He lived with his mother."

"Puerto Rico," Harlan said. "Well, how'd he get in the American Air Force?"

"Puerto Rico's part of the United States."

"Since when?"

"I don't know. A long time."

"I must of missed hearing about it." 

Reportedly, Cassada didn't sell well. It was published in 2000. I found my copy in the local library. Salter died in 2015 at age 90. I'm sorry I cannot write him a letter to tell him how much his book moved me. This will have to do.