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The Third Bullet: Concluding the Saga of Bob Lee Swagger, American Gunman

An alternative history of the Kennedy assassination animates Stephen Hunter's new thriller coming in January.

by
Richard Fernandez

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August 28, 2012 - 1:30 pm
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When Stephen Hunter’s fictional hero Bob Lee Swagger came to bookstores with the 1993 novel Point of Impact, most of the critics attributed the character’s success to Hunter’s vivid writing style, especially as applied to the lore of the gun.  As much or more than any other writer alive, Hunter understands that firearms and the men who wield them, what he calls the American Gunman — though not in the pejorative sense — constituted a major cultural theme in the history of the United States. He is Shane riding into a frontier town, or John Dillinger wreathed in Thompson submachine gun smoke, or Audie Murphy holding a battalion of Nazi infantry at bay. The American Gunman was a figure of myth at par with Achilles and his nodding plumes and Hunter hit the mother lode in depicting him.

But what set apart Bob Lee Swagger in 1993 was something else. He was more than just another portrayal of that myth. In Bob Lee Swagger, who we first find holed up in a trailer in Arkansas with nothing but his wits, rifle and vague unease, Hunter had created the perfect symbol of a generation betrayed. Swagger in his beginnings was really all those Vietnam vets whose superlative skill, sacrifice and prowess had been wasted by the self-appointed Best and the Brightest, sent to their doom for reasons that were too clever by half and which even the puppeteers had themselves forgotten.

So when Bob Lee Swagger is set up as a patsy for the assassination of a left-wing, Third World clergyman by Ivy League covert operatives pursuing their own doubtful agenda in Point of Impact, the reader feels the betrayal anew. When Swagger takes apart his opponents in the finale ,you can imagine a certain demographic of readers were not only reading a story, but cheering as they took vicarious revenge for the outrage perpetrated upon their idealism and youth.

It is perhaps no coincidence that Swagger’s success came shortly after the popularity of the Rambo movies. It was a time when the public was beginning to realize that mainstream media Vietnam and Cold War narratives were not exactly the real story. And Swagger was the beneficiary of that growing awareness.

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