“Man, I bet that bad boy has a story to tell,” a man says after a demolition crew finds a pristine .45 automatic under an old house.
Indeed, that .45 has a mean story to tell, as do other guns, guns and more guns in Stephen Hunter’s ambling saga, “G-Man.”
Hunter follows the story behind the pistol along two tracks. In the first, set in the present day, Vietnam War vet Bob Lee Swagger feels “too old and too tired to start anything new.” His wife urges him to write the story of his father, Earl, a decorated World War II hero, and his grandfather Charles, a rural Arkansas sheriff.
The Swagger men were a sorely troubled clan. Earl’s brother hanged himself. And everything Earl did, Bob suspects, was to oppose his father, whose skill with a gun made death “too sure a thing.” Especially disturbing to Bob is the possibility that his grandfather may have been too friendly with the mob.
As Bob mulls his family’s past, an Arkansas lawyer contacts him about a steel box that turned up on what was, for generations, Swagger family land. A Colt .45 ACP automatic in the box was probably illegally appropriated. Also in the box were a cylinder that may have been a machine gun part, a $1,000 bill, a map marked with an X and a special agent’s badge from the Justice Department.
Convinced that these artifacts could solve the dark mysteries of the men in his family, Bob sets out in search of their meaning. Before long, he senses someone who wants this past kept quiet is following him.
Again and again, Bob’s sources point to something that happened in 1934. His grandfather’s exploits that year as a G-Man thus become the book’s alternate track. Across America, during the depths of the Depression, Charles faces off with John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson.
Hunter renders these gun battles with great skill. The glimpses into Charles’s lightning fast mind are sharp, and the rendering of the gunman’s whiplash moves are impressive. Hunter’s descriptions of the shootouts evoke the war correspondence of Stephen Crane and Ernest Hemingway:
“There was probably also, if you listened close enough, the low hiss of breath, sucked hard into lungs for the enriching force of the oxygen, being now expelled as each man, seeing action on the come, tried to breathe his way toward control of the yips that coursed through hands and arms and the fear that suddenly lubricated each thought and breath.”
But unfortunately, Hunter stalls the momentum of his story with an inordinate amount of detail about guns. We see how they look. We learn of their histories. We study how they’re maintained, and, again and again, we’re told how they work. This level of detail will, admittedly, fascinate some readers, just as surely as it will turn away others.
Equally off-putting to some readers will be the meager roles that Hunter gives women to play in his story. Baby Face Nelson’s girlfriend has a feisty appeal, but she comes off as determined to stand by her man. The few other women who appear exist to give their husbands phone messages or to appear when their husbands call for a beer. One wonders why the author bothered to include them.
Hunter’s double-barreled finish, though, should satisfy everyone. In a series of crosscuts that ramp up to a rat-a-tat pace, the story cuts from Charles facing down Baby Face Nelson to Bob confronting men who want to keep him quiet about the past. Hunter, who garnered a Pulitzer Prize by writing film criticism for The Washington Post, then caps his tale with a perfectly chosen, ironic reference to a classic film. It’s a first-rate fade-out.
Gerald Bartell is an arts writer who lives in Manhattan.
By Stephen Hunter
Blue Rider. 464 pp. $27