Tuesday, January 12, 2010

I, Sniper: A word from Stephen Hunter

[I generally love Stephen Hunter's novels but these last two books shouldn't have been written. If you're looking to get acquainted with Mr. Hunter's work, then I highly recommend all of the earlier tales centering around Bob Lee Swagger and his father, Earl. They are smart and bloody...just stop when you get to "Night of Thunder" and "I, Sniper"...they should be avoided at nearly any cost. I posted a piece penned by Mr. Hunter below along with two reviews of "I, Sniper" of varying enthusiasm.- jtf]

December 29, 2009
Posted by Scott Johnson at 7:19 AM

Stephen Hunter is the Pulitzer Prize-winning former chief film critic of the Washington Post. Steve's most recent collection of film criticism is Now Playing at the Valencia. In July Steve provided us his take on one of the best movies I saw this year.

Steve is also the author of best-selling suspense novels (collected on Amazon here) that include his series featuring Bob Lee Swagger. Today is the publication date of Steve's new addition to the Swagger series, I, Sniper. We invited Steve to write about his new novel for us and he has kindly obliged:

A novel is many things to its author -- child, commercial enterprise, vessel of hope, miracle that it even got finished, miracle that it even got started, bad mistake, great career move, a cry of "I am" to a world that replies "No, you're not" and so on and so forth -- but it's also a referendum on the novelist's subconscious. It's simply too damned much work to come out of the rational part of the brain, and on those late nights when the slate seems as blank as the tank is empty, stuff roars in from the id, sometimes unchecked.

Stephen Hunter

Thus I was astounded to discover to what degree
I, Sniper turned out to be a reflection on my own disillusionment with journalism, in whose newsrooms (first at the Baltimore Sun, then at the Washington Post) I toiled so happily for 38 years. The book proper arose from a publisher's mandate and a personal breakthrough. I had created a character named Bob Lee Swagger, a sort of me with actual courage, who had slugged and blasted his way through a number of adventures, most involving shooting.

He was an ex-marine sniper from Vietnam, with an unusually acute gift for understanding the secret physics of gunfights and other shooting events. He was the vessel also of my love of the warrior, the guy on the tip of the tip of the tip of the spear, and of the killer. That, really, is what state sanctioned force is all about and it offended me profoundly that our therapeutic culture grew so offended by the bloody mess such men inevitably left behind them that it hid their activities behind a screen of euphemism.

I wanted to chronicle -- and celebrate -- what they actually did, and what it cost them, and how it also expressed them. Bob has now become more of a forensics investigator than a shootist; but he still has the old skills and instincts, and they still come into play at key moments. (In I, Sniper, he goes against a team of four new-age bad guys armed with the latest in technological breakthroughs in computer-driven scopes, and has to prevail over youth, stamina and intel chips by savvy and experience; great fun to write and I'm hoping great fun to read.)

Without belaboring the fact, Bob has become so popular that he can't be retired. And many of those people who loved him yearned for a classic sniper novel like Point of Impact or Time to Hunt, where it came down to the marksman's skill, guts and cunning, as matched against his equal in a mile-wide gunfight. I was persuaded, therefore, and I discovered a kind of pleasure as well in constructing another such tale and I believe my reputation as the Fyodor Dostoyevsky of the sniper novel will be validated by the result.

But I felt some compulsion to deal with the industry I had served for so long. I had watched the slow drift of newspaper culture to a kind of sloppy, unstated, certainly unrigorously justified liberalism, even as I was drifting myself toward the conservatism that was my natural personality and destination. Please understand I mean not to impugn either the Sun or the Post or any of the great people I worked with there. I was always treated well, paid well, in some cases beloved. No one ever yelled at me or dissed me; I didn't come home seething with anger and I'm not sitting here pickled in the cold sweat of bitterness. I got every job I ever wanted, I won some big prizes and I retired happily and without rancor.

Still, I remember a moment at the Post where an editor -- a great guy, by the way, and working for him was a privilege -- came up to me to tease me because I had been "outed" as someone who'd contributed to a political party in contravention to newspaper rules and industry ethics. I had been one of two of 100 who had donated to the Republican National Committee (they called on a night when I'd been drinking and a credit card came out before I knew; still, I was guilty, guilty, guilty. But as I say, no one every yelled at me.) "Steve," my editor said, with the rich baritone laugh that made him famous, "we're so glad you're here. You give the rest of us cover!"

And that is the truth. I was useful to the Post as a kind of trophy conservative, who could be counted on to bash Michael Moore and Oliver Stone, yet otherwise be quite a benign presence. I could write the occasional piece on guns, giving them a move they never had before. I went along, telling myself that my career was honorable in that I got ideas into the Post that otherwise would not have seen the light of day (career triumph: I got the phrase "the usual left-wing crap" into print!)

But I was never anything but a gewgaw, a novelty on the staff. How can you work there? some people would say. Well, I would reply, they have never EVER tried to force me into a party line or disciplined me for oppositionist thought.

But still, subtly, without rancor or pain, even pleasantly, still more common comically, I felt my disconnection from office culture and my benign exile. It was okay and I am not complaining. However, a lot of what I felt came out in I, Sniper, in which I chronicle a young aggressive reporter of the sort I had so frequently witnessed. He knows, shall we say, which way the wind is blowing and what values he must pursue in order to prosper. Nothing is ever said, but he understands his obligations to the motherpaper (the New York Times, in this case, as I could not bring myself to criticize the Post for this and it was pleasing payback for the Times' unwillingness to review my books for the last 10 years) .

What he doesn't realize, and the book documents, is that his mindset makes him vulnerable to manipulation. This is what so many young reporters don't get. Their commitment to an agenda, subconsciously or not , distorts the way they see reality. Thus when they say "We are not biased," they honestly believe that. They are reporting what they see, but are oblivious to the fact that they are viewing it from a platform that they take for granted.

Thus, for them, reform is always good, change is always good, its avatars are always noble if not heroic. Anyone who fights against change is always bad, even evil. There are sacred cows: environmentalism, anti-racism, global warming, a whole litany of assumed truths that form the bedrock of how they perceive reality, after their education and their immersion in newsroom culture.

I call it "the Narrative" and it takes on the force of the actual in many journalist's minds, and it perverts the reporting of the news. I dramatized that in I, Sniper as a liberal Times reporter is steered down a primrose path to destruction by a shrewd PR genius who plays on his natural antipathy to the square Joes of the FBI, to people who carry guns and shoot people, to the whole alien culture of force exemplified by military elites, SWAT operators, door kickers and men who risk their lives for a living.

To him its exotic and perhaps a little sexually suspect. He hasn't been adequately educated to respect courage, discipline and sacrifice. He looks askance at the rough men who do dark deeds by night but occasionally let slip a subject and a verb out of agreement. In other words, he is totally a creature of the Narrative.

In the end, the book works best, I believe, as a thriller, not a sermon. But I hope, if I can get more than a few journalists to read it, it offers some Big Macs for thought: its lesson, in the end, is one I believe American journalism must learn if it is to survie: Destroy the Narrative.

I, Sniper first great thriller of '10

JC Patterson • Book it •
Madison County (Miss.) Herald
January 2, 2010

Earl and Bob Lee Swagger have long been my favorites in psychological suspense ratcheted with Sam Peckinpah cinematic shootouts. A Stephen Hunter novel stops fans in their tracks, locked within the scope of Bob The Nailer's sniper rifle or father Earl's steady .45.

Hunter's latest, I, Sniper (Simon & Schuster, $26) is the first great thriller of 2010. Political celebrities of the Vietnam era are being picked off, one by one, by a shooter who defies the logic of accuracy.

The first casualty, Joan Flanders, a Jane Fonda clone (right down to the exercise tape) gets popped outside a swanky restaurant. In quick succession, a husband and wife activist team and a political comic receive bullets of death.

The FBI sets up a Sniper team, headed by Nick Memphis, who's battled alongside Bob Lee Swagger in books past. Nick and his team, including a hot young female agent nicknamed Starling (for Jody Foster's Silence Of The Lambs character) are practically handed the suspect on a silver platter. Crusty ex-marine and legendary sniper Carl Hitchcock is the obvious killer; his path, as easy to track as an elephant.

The takedown is perfect; too perfect. Nick wants another opinion before the case is put to bed. Enter Bob The Nailer, ex-marine sniper extraordinaire. The aging warrior looks at the kills from a shooter's perspective and gives the team his findings: Hitchcock was set up.

Only Bob is willing to make the effort to avenge a legend. And even he's not sure why. Nick sends Bob to train at iSniper, a high tech company that uses computer-enhanced weaponry. Is the real killer lurking here?

Meanwhile, a very powerful, well-connected billionaire wants the case closed. T. T. Constable, the spittin' image of Ted Turner (and Joan Flanders's ex), doesn't like to lose. Constable's high-profile henchmen run a smear campaign on Nick, trying to corrupt the case.

Amid a flurry of Nick Memphis accusations, Bob presses on, canvassing each murder site. When Bob narrowly escapes an ambush, he knows it's time to hunt.

Hunter uses his vast gun and ballistics research to rivet every firearms fan. Bob goes underground, crossing paths with an Irish shooter with a tongue as acid as his aim. The final showdown is an old school, wild west romp right out of High Noon.

Bob Lee Swagger is as fun to follow as Jim Burke's Dave Robicheaux. Fix your sights on I, Sniper, a Stephen Hunter bulls eye in the tradition of Point Of Impact and Time To Hunt. See why this Pulitzer-prize winning movie critic is a favorite with gun and action enthusiasts alike.

Stephen Hunter signs at Lemuria Thursday, Jan. 7, at 5 p.m.

JC Patterson is a literary critic and avid reader.

‘I, Sniper’ reads as if it were designed to get Author on Glenn Beck’s show

By Ben Steelman
The Wilmington Star News
January 2, 2010

Back in November, The New York Times ran an article headlined, “For Thrillers, Glenn Beck is Becoming the New Oprah.”

Author Motoko Rich noted that the Fox News figure is one of the few TV talk show hosts, besides Oprah Winfrey, to feature fiction writers on a regular basis. He tends to focus on thriller specialists such as David Baldacci, Nelson DeMille and James Patterson. Many (though not all) of them spin elaborate conspiracy theories that often (but not always) align with Beck’s conservative beliefs. The Times quoted thriller author Brad Thor as saying of Beck, “He’s our Oprah.”

I mention this because I just finished “I, Sniper,” the sixth Bob Lee Swagger novel by Stephen Hunter – and if I didn’t know better, the book reads as if it were designed – almost desperately – to get Hunter on Glenn Beck’s show.

Hunter started off as a Mainstream Media type, writing movie reviews for the Baltimore Sun and then the Washington Post; he even won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism back in 2003.

For the past decade or so, though, he’s turned to turning out manly fiction about military snipers – chiefly about Gunnery Sgt. Bob Lee Swagger, USMC (Ret), alias “The Nailer,” and his adventures in his supposed retirement.

One of these, “Point of Impact,” was loosely adapted as the movie “Shooter” – very loosely, since in that movie, Swagger was played by Mark Wahlberg. According to “I, Sniper,” the real Bob Lee Swagger, a three-tour Vietnam veteran, looks more like Buddy Ebsen playing Barnaby Jones.

Hunter’s plots have turned more and more red-state; his 2008 Swagger novel, “Night of Thunder,” involved a holdup of the box office at a major NASCAR race and a run-in with an evangelist gone rogue.

All that, however, was practically Democrat compared to “I, Sniper.” (The title echoes “I, The Jury,” the Mickey Spillane novel in which detective Mike Hammer declared war on dirty, stinkin’ Commies.)

As the novel opens, someone with superlative sniper skills is bagging the survivors of the Vietnam antiwar movement: “Hanoi June” Flanders, the second-generation Hollywood star who made a zillion off her exercise videos; a couple of ex-SDS radicals turned professors in Chicago (an apparent reference to alleged Obama mentor Bill Ayres and his wife, Bernadette Dohrn) and a Mort Sahl-like standup comic.

Suspicion falls on Carl Hitchcock, a retired Marine sniper who once had the highest tally of confirmed kills in Vietnam (even higher than Bob Lee’s). He’s been depressed since his wife died, and it’s feared he’s gone off the deep end. The FBI finds the evidence it needs when it raids Hitchcock’s house near Camp Lejeune. Then it finds Hitchcock, dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound in a seedy motel.

Case closed – or is it?

Bob Lee and others of the Sniper-American community aren’t so sure. With support from FBI Special Agent Nick Memphis (another veteran sniper), Bob Lee goes undercover in the gun world to find out who’s behind this.

He discovers a vast, intricate, incredibly well-funded conspiracy involving rich old lefties, the security firm Graywolf (which, like Blackwater, is based in North Carolina), assorted Irish veterans of the British SAS and June Flanders’ bereaved husband, erratic Atlanta cable zillionaire “T.T. Considine.” (Take that, CNN!)

Along the way, Bob Lee and Nick make extended orations about the idiots who buy “the Narrative” (i.e., the Liberal Media line), those craven moral deviants who stabbed our boys in the back in Vietnam, etc. The late, left-leaning newsletter writer O.Z. Harris (I.F. Stone) is exposed as a Soviet mole.

Oh, and those arrogant pantywaists at The New York Times are shown up when they misidentify a Winchester as a Remington on the front page. How incompetent! (Incidentally, on page 22, Hunter informs us that Jacksonville, N.C., and Camp Lejeune are in “Shelby County.” Sorry, that’s Onslow County. His details on ordnance, however, are quite accurate.)

Ideology aside, is “I, Sniper” any good? Not really – certainly not as good as “Night of Thunder.” Hunter lets his characters speechify too long, and he leaves his plot too full of holes. His bad guys can doctor a crime scene well enough to fool the FBI lab – but then they leave the leftish professor’s hard drive, unerased and intact, in his apartment for Bob Lee to find.

The No. 2 villain has a bad case of “Dr. Evil Syndrome” – just when he’s about to kill Bob Lee, he pauses to explain the brilliant scheme and show off the McGuffin, giving Our Hero time to escape.

I suppose that older male readers – the guys who think they’re aging like Clint Eastwood rather than Wilford Brimley – will eat all this up. Others – well, check out Oprah’s latest pick.

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