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Trying to be one of the boys

30 August 2003

12:00 AM

30 August 2003

12:00 AM

Cassada James Salter

Harvill, pp.224, 10.99

A group of bored American fighter pilots liven up their posting in cold war Germany with round-the-campfire joshing, petty squabbles, and some traditional extramarital frolicking. But hey — it’s all locker-room stuff: the banter is kept within acceptable boundaries. For safety’s sake a code of behaviour, however peculiar, is observed. Everyone seems to know the rules, written and unwritten.

Into this frustrated pride of alpha males arrives an anomaly, Lieutenant Robert Cassada. Cassada is ambitious, aloof, reticent and therefore different. He lacks the carelessness or the natural talent of his fellow officers. He is also Puerto Rican, a fact which causes confusion and suspicion:

‘Well, how’d he get in the American Air Force?’ ‘Puerto Rico’s part of the United States.’ ‘Since when?’

Rather like the new boy in the class at school, the one who arrives slightly after the start of term (due to some inevitably feeble illness), Cassada seems unable to keep his head below the parapet. He is a flop, from the moment he walks into the canteen and announces that he doesn’t drink coffee — ‘I seem to be sensitive to the caffeine.’ He sweeps his hair back, ‘Anglo style’. He’s a try-hard. He’s a swank. He sucks up to his superiors. He’s not the flying ace he thinks he is. He’s not good for his bets. Naturally, Cassada becomes desperate to prove himself and be accepted into this rather dubious tribe. But he is limited by the very thing which motivates him: he is proud, he minds too much. And this impairs his judgment, leading to tragedy.

Usually it is gratifying to stand up for the underdog and despise boorish gang behaviour, but Cassada is, annoyingly, a rather difficult character to ally oneself to. The reader is therefore denied the smug feeling of having been broad-minded enough to embrace an outsider. And indeed the rest of the squadron — though some are thick and others shallow — are not really beastly. They make semi- courteous overtures to Cassada, attempting to bring him into the fold, but he rejects them. The chip on his shoulder obstructs the welcoming arm they try to fling around him.

Cassada’s difficult induction into the squadron is a starting-point for Salter’s examination of an unreal world, a cold war world, where men are trained for combat but sit stifled in their mess-tents. It is a story which has more to do with the perils of inaction than those of action — if only these men had more to do, then they wouldn’t waste their time sitting about growling at each other. But then if they did have more to do, it’d be combat, which could hardly be described as an improvement. The trouble is, however brilliantly precise Salter’s dialogue, and however convincing his characterisation, the story is lacklustre and the characters unappealing, making reading Cassada like spending a wet Sunday afternoon lying on the sofa —boring and tiring at the same time.

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