A Broadly Painted Bull's-Eye on the South
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
NIGHT OF THUNDER
A Bob Lee Swagger Novel
By Stephen Hunter
Simon & Schuster. 290 pp. $26
After a jaunt to Japan and a crash course in swordplay in "The 47th Samurai," 63-year-old marksman extraordinaire Bob Lee Swagger has returned to the good old U.S. of A. He's back on the Montana farm that provides a haven for him and his family. But then he learns that his elder daughter, 24-year-old journalist Nikki, has been left in a coma after a hit-and-run near Bristol, Tenn. While local police are chalking up the accident to some teen, high on meth or NASCAR, Swagger fears that his daughter may be paying the price for his own violent past -- 87 kills at last count. And so it's off to the mountains of Tennessee and into the heart of the NASCAR Nation.
Hunter, a former film critic at The Washington Post, knows a good plot when he sees one: fast cars, meth labs and a tough man taking care of his family. When the detective investigating the case asks, "Mr. Swagger, you don't have some vigilante-kickass thing in mind, do you?" he replies, "No, no, ma'am, an old coot like me?" But we've all seen enough Clint Eastwood and Tommy Lee Jones movies to know that old coots can rise to the occasion when needed (and if we need reminding, Hunter drops both actors' names). So don't mind his newly earned limp or the sudden gray hair. Just bring on the firepower. Bob the Nailer is back.
Perhaps few thriller writers out there can match Hunter's skill when it comes to writing about guns -- not just in precise listings of caliber, range and impact, but in prose both lyrical and reverent. Consider this sample from a long, exquisite passage about a vintage .45 Colt: Bob "snapped the cylinder shut, not hard and flashy like the fools in the movies did, but with a soft, almost gentle touch. For a revolver, even a big old boy like this one, was a gentle mesh of the strong and the delicate, an intricate, frail system of pins and levers and springs and arms that had to work in perfect synchronicity, in a very nineteenth-century sense of mission, for it was a relic of that far century. . . . For Bob Lee Swagger, it was like reentering a cathedral; this is where he was raised to a faith and it had never let him down and he would not let it down."
Hunter succeeds as well in touching on the tragedies of the methamphetamine craze in rural America and later in capturing the throb and hum of the Bristol Motor Speedway: "the meandering beast of the crowd," "the whirls and eddies of pilgrims" and the "steady deafening roar" of those cars thundering around the track.
But though individual passages reveal both grace and power, and though the plot unfolds at a steadily suspenseful pace -- revelations about an elaborate caper planned for race day and about how Nikki stumbled into it -- Hunter seems to stumble badly himself when it comes to the simple mechanics of character and dialogue. Don't any of these characters notice that Swagger speaks like he's stepped out of a bad B-movie? And do the villains really have to be so ludicrously cartoonish? One is blatantly so, calling himself the Sinnerman and sporting a surgically enhanced resemblance to Richard Petty. The other, the Rev. Alton Grumley, is steeped in hackneyed Southern stereotypes. Looking like a "cross between Colonel Sanders and Jimmy Carter," the Rev. Grumley spouts fiery rhetoric to mask his insatiable and indiscriminate lust, but he's begotten his own sprawling, inbred herd of hillbilly henchmen, who are a mix of cunning violence and brute ignorance. Staking out Swagger, a pair of Grumleys kill time trying to figure out if they're brothers or cousins or both. Vern, the prized progeny, has a taste for underage flesh, especially in moments of stress, as after botching a hit. It's as if the Snopeses moved to Tobacco Road and started dabbling in kiddie porn -- not just offensive but outdated, harking back to sordid stereotypes more than a century old.
By the book's end, when a father's determination to right wrongs comes head-to-head with a Southern crime syndicate's thirst for money and animalistic mating, Hunter pulls out all the stops. Despite some improbable plot turns, the climactic set piece at the speedway is a real thrill ride, fueled by pure action-junkie adrenaline.
But honestly, the book had already lost me.
As I read, my mind wandered down meandering tangents, spurred by the novel's elements and by Hunter's own movie background. If you say it quickly enough, doesn't the book's title sound an awful lot like that ultra-creepy Robert Mitchum film "The Night of the Hunter"? And wasn't that movie about religion and crime and sex and family, too? And then Mitchum's name led to another resonant title, "Thunder Road," and some of that film's ingredients offer echoes as well: macho Southerners and muscle cars, for example, with moonshine instead of meth. Surely, the film critic in Hunter wasn't unaware of these little parallels, was he? But if they're intentional, what do they mean? What is their purpose?
Perhaps it says something about Hunter's latest that I was ultimately more intrigued by these questions and possible connections than by the novel itself.