Two Stephens writing about the Kennedy assassination. It felt like a weird synchronicity that I tripped over The Third Bullet just as I finished 11/22/63, although with the 50th anniversary last year we should probably all just be grateful that every book published for the past 18 months wasn’t about JFK.
Stephen Hunter isn’t as good a writer as Stephen King, and lately he isn’t even as good a writer as Stephen Hunter, but in The Third Bullet, he starts off with the most godawful crossover of the writer into his own fiction that I ever hope to read, and showed why only Stephen King should be allowed to try it. When King injected himself into the closing stages of the Dark Tower sequence, it was jarring and dumb, but somehow I felt like he’d earned the right to do it. He’s been circling round the same narrow set of ideas and places for most of his writing life, bits of his books jutting into each other and huge chunks of his own life spearing through the main characters. King has really thought about the way readers and writers and the writer’s own experiences somehow merge together in the world of a book, and it would have been almost out of character if he hadn’t had some kind of cameo in his most personal book. Hunter….
When Stephen Hunter was just a broke gun nut writing books in his spare time for reviewing movies and doing anything else he had to do to stop his newspaper from downsizing him, I liked his books. Now that’s he’s got millions and decided that that gives him permission to throw his political opinions into his books whether they belong there or not, he no longer feels like anyone I’d like to have a pint with. And it’s not like the rest of his work is holding up well enough that he can afford to sound like a cross between a saloon bar bore and a taxi-driver with a UKIP tie.
How do I know he’s got millions? Because he goes out of his way to tell me. The Third Bullet opens with Stephen Hunter killing himself, and by the time it happens, it almost seems like a good idea. I, Sniper starts with a roman a clef opener in which a stand-in for Hanoi Jane gets murdered after the author all but says “and served her right, the unpatriotic bitch”. That pretty much ruined the book for me, or it would have if Hunter hadn’t gone ahead and ruined the rest of it anyhow. The Third Bullet kicks that up several gears by using the same device of an opening murder of a thin disguise of a real person; the difference being that this time it’s Hunter, with literally the worst fake name imaginable; “Aptapton”. What the everloving …. ? Anyhow, he fleshes out his alter ego with a loving portrait of all the cool stuff his success has bought him and a passel of references to his various bestsellers, with plenty of fake humility about how the public hadn’t really taken to the one about killing people with motor cars. So it wasn’t just me, then. It’s just dumb and self indulgent, but what makes it terrible, lazy, smirking story telling is that Aptapton is remembering writing fictional books which we know (because, God help us, we’ve read all the Stephen Hunter books - only the devotees could possibly be reading this crap, hoping that maybe he’s got back on form) are supposed to be real events in the Swagger-verse. Now, a better writer - a King, for example - could have done something with that meta-reference. But a hack like Hunter just breaks the glaze of credibility which any novel needs, and replaces it with nothing. You need to start the ball rolling by having an elderly writer killed for looking in the wrong place for a new story? Fine. Do it. But make up some different books for him to have written.
After an opening so bad, everything else has at least the chance of being better, and there are indeed bits and scraps of what follows which made it just about worth slogging to the end. But for all that his recurring characters keep bitching about how Swagger keeps doing the same dangerous things again and again and hoping that they’ll work, Hunter doesn’t seem to be reading his own memos; Swagger just does keep doing the same things again and again and succeeding.
The one new thing is that Hunter tries his hand at first person narrative, weaving into the text the memoirs of the villain of the piece. This doesn’t quite come off, because Hunter is trying to write in the voice of a man who is trying to write like Nabokov, and you have to be a very good writer to write someone writing badly. Or at least it’s best if you haven’t already stuffed up third person narrative in the same book. Huh? How can you get third person narrative wrong? You have to make your mind up what you’re writing; is your voice that of the writer, recounting the stuff which has happened from the outside, assisted by the knowledge of how it really was and not just how it looked? Or is your voice really that of the character, putting us inside the character’s head and only showing us what he sees and thinks. You have to choose one, and having chosen, you have to stick to it. Your voice, or the character’s voice. Hunter breaks that rule again and again, letting his own opinions seep into the narrative where they just don’t belong.
As with all Swagger-verse books, the problem in the plot is Swagger, the unbreakable hero in a world of expendable meat sacks. The older Swagger gets, the less credible his survival gets, and the harder Hunter has to work to create a scenario in which Swagger can prevail against all the odds. His incredibly powerful opponents have to construct edifices of dizzying double-think so as to create a plan which will seem fool-proof without ultimately being Swagger-proof. The ingenuity doesn’t go into Swagger’s escapes, but into thinking of a way the villains can talk themselves into being dumb enough to create something which even Swagger can escape from. The whole plot feels like that monologue the villain always indulges in so that the hero can wriggle out of his bonds. Come to think of it, maybe that’s what that whole first person section was supposed to be.
There is, rather wonderfully, a Chekhov’s gun, an actual gun which exists merely to flag the secret identity of the villain as cryptically as possible. I felt dumb for not seeing it, which is the way that kind of thing is supposed to work. Ah-ha, of course, you think. Well played.
If I was feeling generous - and plainly I’m not - I’d say that this was an interesting revisit of the first and most worthwhile Swagger book, Point of Impact. They’re both, after all, about a plot to shoot a guy and get a patsy blamed for the shooting, and the set-up depends on gimmicking a gun to make it look as if it’s fired a bullet from a different gun. But rather winningly, Hunter’s afterword explains that what you’ve just finished reading is the book he originally tried to write when he started Point of Impact, but which he couldn’t get to work the first time. Damned if I didn’t feel stupid at how it had never struck me that there was a critique of the Warren Commission embedded in Point of Impact. Seems so obvious now. But I’d have to say that Hunter was right the first time.