Point of Impact by Stephen Hunter
(Bantam Books, 1993)
Review by Claire Wolfe
Special to _The Libertarian Enterprise
Bob Lee Swagger is a Southern good ol' boy, uneducated, Vietnam vet, redneck, loner gun nut who spends his days in a trailer in the Arkansas hills. His only companions are his dog, multiple weapons and a lot of reloading equipment. Except for a few speaking acquaintances, he has no friends.
Sound familiar? It could be the Morris Dees line on a "racist militiaman" or a media "analysis" of a man who shot up a kindergarten class.
There's just one thing different. Bob Lee is the good guy.
Bob Lee Swagger is the hero of Stephen Hunter's breathlessly paced novel, Point of Impact. Though not an explicitly libertarian book (or an explicitly political book at all) Point of Impact is a novel to delight the heart of any gun devotee, gun-rights activist, or freedom lover.
It was published three years ago and is now available in paperback.
Why review a novel that's been kicking around bookstores since 1993? Four reasons:
* First, it's "soon to be a major motion picture."
* Second, a companion volume, Black Light, has recently been published, and Impact is worth a look before you read the other.
* Third, too many people seem to have missed this one first time around.
* And fourth, there has recently been much fuss in libertarian and gun-rights circles about another firearms-oriented novel, Unintended Consequences by John Ross. I seem to be alone in viewing the Ross book as an embarrassing piece of trash that (if anything) will hurt the gun-rights movement. While I certainly won't deny anyone the right to disagree about Ross, I want to point out what I think is a far superior work. With none of the pretension to greatness that mars Ross' amateur ego-fest, Point of Impact, is, in it's own unpretentious way, a great book for gun rights.
The Plot Thickens
As the book opens, Bob Lee has lived alone for many years, suffering the pain of his war wounds. During the war, he earned a reputation as "Bob the Nailer, second best Marine sniper in Vietnam." (Hunter repeatedly stresses that the record for enemy kills belongs to a "Gunnery Sergeant Carl Hitchcock." Whatever your view of the Vietnam War, it's hard not to appreciate Hunter's graceful tribute to the real-life, now dying, old soldier, Carlos Hathcock.)
After a period of out-of-control post-war partying and boozing, Bob has found a peaceful center, alone in the hills.
So when mysterious strangers show up, claiming they want their specialty police-sniper ammo tested by the best in the world, Bob is at first inclined to drive them off. He agrees to work with them only after one of his visitors demonstrates an apparently authentic and honorable military background.
Besides which, Bob is curious. He really wants to see this ammo. He also suspects these folks are CIA, and he wants to learn what they're up to.
Gradually, the strangers win Bob's cooperation and reveal their "real" motive in contacting him. Drawn in by their superbly accurate ammunition and their appeal to his skill and vanity as one of the world's most accurate snipers, Bob agrees to help them prevent an assassination -- an assassination being planned by an unknown sniper even more skilled than he.
What follows is a spree of plots within plots, where nothing is as it seems. Despite his caution, Bob Lee is framed for a crime he didn't commit. Most of the book is the story of his run from "justice" and his revenge against the men who framed him.
Throughout the novel, Hunter offers rich details about firearms, reloading and accuracy shooting. We learn how temperature and humidity affect bullet drop, and how neck-turning improves the accuracy of a cartridge. We learn about the sport of bench-rest shooting and the kind of people who are devoted to it. We learn what goes on in the mind of a sniper as he is waiting to make his kill.
Hunter has written a number of novels, all about shooters and many about snipers. He seldom makes an error in his technical detail. And (unlike John Ross) he does not bring the plot to a dead halt to bore the reader with his expertise. Technical detail is woven believably into the action.
While the book takes no overt political stance, it is clear in every paragraph that Hunter believes in the benefits of firearms and shooting skill, that he distrusts the federal government, and that he has no truck with media stereotypes of shooters. His Bob Lee Swagger -- deliberately given the superficial profile anti-gunners love -- demonstrates intelligence, strength, nobility, humanity, and wry wit at every turn.
A painfully funny moment in the story comes when Hunter -- a journalist himself -- gives us three scathingly satiric renderings of newspaper editorials about Bob and his "crime."
Here is what Hunter's fictionalized Baltimore Sun has to say about a bolt-action rifle, after we have been shown the very different truth:
"Who needs a long-range assault rifle capable of shooting a man dead at over 400 yards? Certainly not the thousands of children who perish accidentally at the hands of such militaristic-styled guns every year nor the thousands more innocent citizens killed by such multi-shot long-range guns when carried by drug dealers on our city's streets....Only the powerful gun lobby, drug dealers, the demented men who kill animals for pleasure...."
Who needs extended lectures about the bias of the media or the ignorance of anti-gunners, when a skilled novelist can pillory our opponents so effectively in a few paragraphs, using their own ideas?
Point of Impact is a likable, informative, page-turner of a novel. It is not, alas, a perfect book. Hunter has a habit -- in every novel of his that I've read -- of hanging crucial plot developments on 1) unbelievable coincidences or 2) unbelievably good guesses by one character about the motives or actions of another. In some of his books (most notably The Master Sniper and The Second Saladin), I've found these leaps of logic hard to ignore.
But Point of Impact is so excellent that I willingly suspended disbelief. In fact, I found on a second reading that some of what had seemed illogical at first did, in fact, make sense.
The ending is a bit pat, unfortunately. However, if the complex plot of this book makes it intact into "a major motion picture," that same, pat climactic scene could turn into fine film drama. I'm looking forward to finding out.
Claire Wolfe is a professional copywriter. When not writing respectable advertising copy for corporations, she produces books such as the upcoming 101 Things to Do 'til the Revolution, to be published in November by Loompanics Unlimited.
Imagine a government bent on sharing its sensitive, caring, environmentally friendly ways with an entire universe. Then imagine the army it needs. CLD -- Collective Landing Detachment. Dark military SF. By Victor Milan. From AvoNova.
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