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.
Some headlines just grab you.
US student “ate roommate’s brain and heart” — Telegraph.
Canada cannibal says he believed victim was an alien — Telegraph. “A Chinese immigrant who beheaded and cannibalised a Canadian bus passenger in front of horrified travelers four years ago spoke out for the first time Tuesday, saying he believed his victim was an alien.”
Cannibal on run after warning The Sun: I can’t stop killing — The UK Sun. “We showed cops sick film of a live KITTEN fed to a snake and an email warning: ‘Once you kill and taste blood it’s impossible to stop.’ Luka Magnotta, 29, fled after his male partner — a missing Chinese student — was chopped up and eaten in Canada.”
And you thought the problem was going to be the Zombie Apocalypse. One way to think about these accounts is as instances of severe mental illness.
Woman kills husband, tries to cook body parts — AFP. “The police arrested Zainab Bibi, 32, and her nephew Zaheer, 22, in the Shah Faisal colony of Pakistan’s southern megacity Karachi, and recovered the bowl of flesh she planned to cook, said police chief for the area Nadeem Baig.”
“They killed Ahmed Abbas, Zainab’s husband, and chopped his body into pieces and were about to cook the flesh in a bowl,” he told AFP, adding that the knife with which they killed the man had been recovered.
Television networks showed gruesome footage of the human flesh in a bowl ready for the stove.
Or maybe times are just hard. But mental illness is a more likely cause than poverty for lurid headlines like this: “Russian cannibal ate gay date” — Global Post.
A 21-year-old Russian cannibal brutally stabbed his gay date to death and then made him into meatballs and uploaded footage of him cooking onto the internet.
The two are probably related in some way. Reuters reports that mental illness is up in Greece. “Job loss can lead to an accumulation of risks that can tip people into depression and severe mental illness which can be difficult to reverse — especially if people are not getting appropriate care.” A person diagnosed with bipolar disorder writes: “Is there an alternative to being mentally ill?”
I wish there were; I’d probably have an easier time making friends. Living with bipolar disorder allows for only two courses of action, really: acknowledgment and denial. Knowing the risks associated with the latter (such as lapses into self-destructive behavior, which had gotten so bad with me that my parents and friends all but dragged me by the hair to a psychiatrist’s office), I’ll take acknowledgment, thank you, even if it’s not always easy. It means accepting that I sometimes need to hold still for a few hours lest I do anything rash. It means checking in with a shrink at least once a year to make sure I’m getting treated appropriately. (Since I don’t have health insurance, this is a lot harder to do now that Mayor Emanuel closed half of Chicago’s public mental health clinics, but that’s another story.) And it means admitting my vulnerability to family and friends, who do want to help me, I learned, when I feel I can’t get through life on my own.
The observation above may sound funny to a healthy person but it probably isn’t for the guy with the problem. For him it is all deadly serious, in a way that an unafflicted person can scarcely imagine.