POINT OF IMPACT. By Stephen Hunter. Bantam Books. 451 pages. $22.
IF Stephen Hunter's fifth novel, "Point of Impact," were found in a time capsule by a future anthropologist, what would the book reveal about popular culture of the 1990s?
The first observation might be that the '90s were violent times. This book is first and foremost about Guns with a capital G, and that rhymes with D, and that stands for Dead.
Get out your guns & ammo dictionary; you'll need it to decipher the bullet/gun lingo that weaves through every page. The working formula for popular novels used to be "sex by the second chapter." Mr. Hunter, The Sun's movie critic, gives us violent death by the second chapter. Blood and gore abound here, graphically, even aesthetically.
"Point of Impact" has the old-time Western hero. Bob Swagger is the strong, silent type, uneducated but more clever than any psychiatrist, more patriotic than the FBI bimbos who cover up embarrassing government mistakes, a mixture of Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson, a Lone Ranger, Rambo and James Fenimore Cooper's Hawkeye all rolled into one Vietnam War hero.
Mess with his dog or his woman and you're dead. Swagger's adventures with government intrigue move swiftly from Arkansas to Maryland to New Orleans to the desert Southwest and back to Arkansas. They hark back to the early Westerns, as sharpshooters double around to pick off bad guys at impossible distances.
However, Swagger has much more than the courage of the cowboy. A lover of danger, he triumphs over unbelievable odds: 120 evil Panther Battalion killers to one Bob the Nailer. Move over, Superman!
Would an anthropologist say that this novel reflects an exclusively male world? Only two women enter the story of government intrigue, complete with the CIA, the FBI and a plot to kill the president, and the women's roles are as traditional as the Western hero's. They do what they are told, become pawns in the world of violence and foul language, and they worship their men -- who treat them as the saviors they are.
Bob's woman Julie rejuvenates him, reviving his will to live, and Nick's woman Sally discovers the sensitive side of this FBI man that everyone else has missed. The women are cogs in the wheel of male dominance.
While Mr. Hunter's characters resemble old American heroes, his style is completely contemporary. In fact, the style is a made-for-movie technique guaranteed to produce your favorite Friday night shoot-em-up.
We flash from one subplot scene to another with no cumbersome description to set the mood. Save descriptions for the movie camera! Hunter is a master of suspense as he breaks off action just when a gun is about to fire or when the key bit of evidence is found, and we are left hanging, panting to return to the moment and find out who dies or why someone is double-crossed.
There are no loose ends in these subplots, though. Bob Swagger, in his brilliant naivete, keeps us all in amazement as he pulls one surprise after another out of his camouflage pants. Even Mr. Hunter seems in awe of the unpredictable behavior of his hero, who keeps one step ahead of the shrewdest of bad guys and never reveals his secrets until the very last page of the trial scene at the end of the book.
If cliches live because of the ageless truths they embody, this book will live. Bob's faithful dog Mike, a key figure in the convoluted plot, pours "dumb love" from his eyes to his hero, and Julie convinces Bob that "now I have something to live for." Perhaps the simplicity of this language is necessary to balance the police jargon and coded language that fill so many scenes and often leave a reader wondering what is happening.
But mystery and conspiracy, too, are signs of the times. Mr. Hunter's book reflects the double-agent lives we all lead as we read the newspaper and wonder where truth lies. Would an anthropologist note the lack of confidence in our political and law enforcement institutions so obvious in the book?
Finally, what would the time capsule reveal about human motivation in the 1990s? "Point of Impact" works because of two elements: plot and the adrenalin rush. Today's readers want action and the tension of not being able to guess the ending. They are entertained by intrigue and heroes who have their own code of individuality and power. Perhaps the anthropologist studying this bit of popular culture will find a sadness in the blood-and-guts appeal of Mr. Hunter's book, but even this raw theme goes back at least as far as the Roman gladiators. Times have not changed at all.
Joan E. Hellman is associate professor of developmental education at Catonsville Community College.