"Time to Hunt," Stephen Hunter. Doubleday. 467 pages. $23.95.
For years, Bob Lee Swagger drank to forget his days in "The Land of Bad Things," as he calls Vietnam, the land where he earned a fearsome name for his skill as a sniper, "Bob the Nailer." In "Time to Hunt," Swagger drinks to remember, to remember especially his jungle confrontation with a dreaded rival, "the white sniper," who killed his friend, and put a bullet in Swagger's hip, where it lies lodged, a bad memory.
A generation later, in the Idaho fastness where Swagger has fled to forget, the white sniper comes hunting for him and his family. The battle is joined again, but first Swagger must drink to remember the past, to understand the present.
Readers need not similarly slug down Jim Beam to recall the Vietnam era at home and abroad. After a chilling introduction where the white sniper puts his prey in the cross-hairs, Hunter (the author, that is) spends 240 pages telling us all about 'Nam and domestic protests before getting down to the principal business at hand, which is completing one helluva thriller.
Hunter is a very good movie critic (now for the Washington Post, formerly for The Sun) and he knows a lot about building suspense. But even the viewers of "Jaws" didn't have to wait so long to cut to the chase. That's because the author clearly has an agenda, which is disposing of his own negative feelings about Vietnam.
He didn't serve there, but buried the dead at Arlington Cemetery when they came home in caskets and worked in riot control during the wave of antiwar protests enveloping the capital. And he signals his intentions with the play on his own name in the novel's title and by quoting Kipling on World War I at the outset, "If any question why we died/Tell them, because our fathers lied."
He writes with brio, but would have been well advised to listen to his own words in the mouth of Swagger's wife, who tells Bob the Nailer that he is subject to "the great male failing of your age. Vanity. ... You think everything is about you."
The excursion to the past is a fragment of another book, no matter that it a pretty good book. Eventually, Hunter returns to the present, and to the lastest crusade of his hero, who swaggers no more, thanks to that bullet in his hip. He gets a friendly veterinarian to cut it out, is startled by its message, and staggers after his nemesis. "You want the man-to-man thing," says his savvy wife. "I can tell. You against him just like Vietnam."
It turns out to be a bit more complex. There is some great stuff here, about the strategy, scopes and stances of snipers, how they twist their leg to tighten a single muscle, the adductor magnus, to provide the requisite muscular tension to squeeze off a shot.
And in Bob the Nailer, Hunter has a great character, who does not so much recall the heroes of Kipling, but the old and battered Ulysses of Tennyson: "We are not now that strength which in old days/moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are:/One equal temper of heroic hearts,/made weak by time and fate, but strong in will/To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."
Mike Leary, a former national and foreign correspondent an books editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer, is now the editor for amateur sports.
Pub Date: 7/05/98