Monday, 15 March 2010

NIght of Thunder; the slow death of a serviceable talent

Some time back I blogged the film made of Stephen Hunter's break-out thriller, Point of Impact. My grumble at the time was that Hollywood had made a curiously flat movie out of an interesting book. I can stop blaming Hollywood for this kind of thing, because Stephen Hunter has started making curiously flat books out of his best characters.

I've just, rather gratefully, put down Night of Thunder, a book which would almost certainly not have been published in its current form if it hadn't had such a long run of better predecessors. This post is going to be mostly about those better predecessors; the scope of the current failure can only be understood in that context.

I've read everything that Stephen Hunter has published, except for his movie reviews, which aren't easily available here. I remember borrowing his first book, The Master Sniper, from my local library, which means I read it thirty years ago, near enough. Oh dear. The Master Sniper is a clever twisty bit of work with some strong characters and a neatly grubby plot where it turns out that the last big Nazi crime is all about the money. It's a short book, but they all were in those days. His next two books weren't as good; Second Saladin and Tapestry of Spies are both variations on a theme, the way in which governments hire tricky people to get things done and those tricky people screw decent people over because decent people are dumb enough to do the right thing without asking what's in it for them. Or whether they're right in thinking it's the right thing. His fourth book, The Day Before Midnight, was a real barn-burner by comparison. Big, high concept plot, lots of characters, many of them genuinely engaging, and a hell of a lot of gunplay. I'm still surprised that book never got made into a movie.

Everything seems to have changed for Hunter with Point of Impact. Everything he's done since then has happened in what we might as well call the Swagger-verse; nine more books have been set in the same world, eight of them revolving around either Bob Lee Swagger, the protagonist of Point of Impact, or Earl Swagger, Bob Lee's father. Point of Impact's a very good thriller. It was clearly written as a stand alone book; Hunter had some horrible problems marrying together the time lines of earlier work when he wrote Black Light, the second Bob Lee Swagger book and the one where - I'd argue - he made the mistake of getting too interested in his character. In between Point of Impact and Black Light, he wrote the very good Dirty White Boys, which is probably the only book he's written from the point of view of the bad guys. Point of Impact and Dirty White Boys are probably Hunter's best books. In Black Light, he set out to draw together the origin stories of the main characters in each book; both Bob Lee and Lamar Pye are revealed to be sons of the same father, Earl Swagger. Hunter, in the afterword to Black Light, admits that he never figured on doing this when he was writing the first two books, and as a result the time lines don't gel properly in the three books. That's a perfectionist's flaw; the three books actually hang together reasonably well considering that they've been slammed together as an afterthought. If Hunter had just stopped there, all might have been well. He'd put together a trilogy of books about violent American manhood that were passably well written and genuine page turners. The right move would have been to have a good hard think about some new characters and write about them.

Sadly, instead, Hunter's been going back to the same well ever since, and he's just worn the characters out. Since Black Light, we've had three books about Earl, and four more about Bob Lee. It's been ever diminishing returns. Writing about Earl presents Hunter with some serious problems; the character has to die in 1955, because that's one of the key facts about Bob Lee Swagger, and it's the pivot around which the three good books turn. So all the books about Earl have to be prequels. This makes it hard to pump in tension, because the reader knows Earl has to make it out in one piece, and it makes it even harder to put together the plots because the books are all stuck in the time between 1945 and 1955. Even so, the books about Earl have been more of a success than the books about Bob Lee. Hot Springs is probably the best of the three, because it's really the origin story of the guy who eventually shoots Earl, and although no-one seems to have told Hunter this, he's actually much better at writing squirrelly little almost-successes than he is at writing manly heroes. Most of his best viewpoint characters are company typists, not he-men.

The Bob Lee books are stuck with a problem Hunter shouldn't still be trying to beat. Bob Lee is a VietNam veteran. In his first appearance, that was fine, because the book was published in 1993, and a man young enough to be a Marine Corps sniper in VietNam was a plausible middle aged burnout 20 or 25 years later. 16 years later, it's pushing credibility that Bob Lee is still running around getting into trouble and getting out of it safely. In Night of Thunder Bob Lee is explicitly 63 years old. Being 63 is not easy. Being 63 when you've been shot up half a dozen times and spent most of your early middle age as a fully paid up alcoholic; well, it's not plausible. But it's not just that the character's too old to be doing what he's doing; what he's doing feels too thin and used up. Night of Thunder lacks a decent villain. It lacks a deep and twisty plot. It lacks any real depth of characterisation. Bob Lee is invulnerable, and everyone else is disposable cardboard. We KNOW that none of the bad guys are going to make it.

Night of Thunder is not the worst Bob Lee Swagger book; that dubious prize goes to the 47th Samurai, which combines a flat, go nowhere plot, uninteresting characters and a truly unbelievable quest for Swagger. Not content with having his character be the greatest rifle shot that ever lived, Hunter makes him into a passable Samurai swordsman. Now I get that Hunter likes violent cinema and wanted to do a homage to all the samurai movies he's enjoyed. But if that was what he wanted to do, it would have been a better plan to think up a new character and make up a whole new book about him. In the 47th Samurai Bob Lee jumps the shark to become Mary Sue Hunter, and I stopped believing in him. Night of Thunder can't really top that. Not that it does anything else much.

In part I'm moved to this long grumble by the sample chapter for the next Bob Lee book, I, Sniper. That chilled my blood in all the wrong ways. It gives us the sniper murder of three thinly disguised icons of the left (not being the kind of person who grinds his teeth to sleep each night at the thought of how commies are running America, I don't have all of these modern-day Satans at my fingertips, but the first to go might as well have been called Jane Fonda and have done with it for all the trouble Hunter went to). It's not just that it's badly written (the exclamation mark is a sign that you don't know the word you need to suggest true drama); it's rather hateful. Hunter's authorial voice seems to be suggesting that the world could do with a bit of leftie-culling. No, not really, I don't think.

But above all I'm depressed by the slow dwindling of what was, in its prime, a strong storytelling voice. No-one was ever going to confuse Hunter with literature, but at his peak, he was genuinely good at what he did. And now he's not. In the past it seems to have taken him three to four years to write a book, partly because he was still a working journalist. I wish he'd get back to that pace instead of chunking out thinner and thinner pastiches every year.

And speaking of thinner things, a word to his US paperback publisher. I don't care how cool you think it looks or how much money it seems to be saving; making a standard sized paperback five millimeters narrower than its already tiny size is not big, not clever, and not the way you're going to stop people from downloading e-books. I thought my oversized Glen Cooks were awkward to read, but at least I wasn't peering at the text through a slit the width of business card.

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