The Third Bullet
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 as 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.
The real attraction of Bob Lee Swagger, something Hunter would occasionally forget -- but not for long -- was not in the action scenes he featured in, but in who he was. To follow the Swagger character in those times before the Internet was to participate in an act of vicarious rebellion against the Narrative; to secretly hum the literary equivalent of that once popular song whose refrain went "take this job and shove it. I ain't working here no more."
Although all of the Bob Lee Swagger novels are entertaining, only two reach the level of Point of Impact. There is Time to Hunt, which is arguably the best and again a return to the lost threads of the Vietnam War, and then there is his latest novel, The Third Bullet due out in January, 2013 of which I have an advance copy.
Although set in the approximate present, The Third Bullet is more about the 1960s than any other of Hunter's recent books. It is a return as it were to the Origin of Everything. The dramatic hook is nothing less than the central mystery of modern American history, the JFK assassination. What happened on That Day in Dallas, the day which had such fateful consequences for Bob the Nailer's generation? And who better to answer the question and unravel its final mysteries than Bob Lee Swagger himself?
'Bob the Nailer' understands guns and in Hunter's view the key to decoding what happened in Dealey Plaza 1963 is to know what guns are capable and not capable of doing. So about a quarter of the book is spent watching Swagger being forced to think through the problem afresh and driven to conclude by the timeline, history and above all ballistics that not only were the Warren Commissioners wrong but nearly all the conspiracy buffs were as well.
Of course you're not expected to believe the theory, which is a literary device, but it is tribute to Hunter's narrative skill that what emerges is at least as credible as any of the other theories that have been proposed. The rest of the book naturally consists of watching the developing duel of wits between Bob Lee Swagger and the unseen enemy mastermind. They include the set-piece action scenes for which Hunter is famous. There are shootouts on American streets, in a Russian city, and of course the showdown on the final distant hilltop which is the trademark Boss Battle of Swagger novels.
But what puts The Third Bullet on the level with Point of Impact and Time to Hunt is that it concludes the Bob Swagger story. Although I leave it to the reader to discover whether our hero physically survives in the plotline there is the definite sense that the arc for which Bob the Nailer has been dramatically created has been successfully and satisfyingly fulfilled. The character who was born in Point of Impact and who grows to maturity in Time to Hunt has achieved in The Third Bullet what only the protagonists in successful literary serials can do: put the roof on a complete fictional universe; round out a virtual world that makes sense in its entirety and make it a place that we are content to revisit again and again just to see if everything was where we left it. If there's a Pantheon for fictional American Gunmen, then Swagger has made it in.
The Third Bullet due out in January, 2013 -- not coincidentally the 50th anniversary year of That Day in Dallas.