BULLETS IN HIS HEAD

THE BALTIMORE SUN

STANDING INSIDE THE SHOOTING gallery of On Target in Severn is like crouching inside the mouth of a mythical beast. The ceiling and walls are covered with jagged rocks resembling teeth, and the floor is littered with something that appears to be cracked seeds. On closer inspection, the "seeds" turn out to be spent shell casings, and they emit small, seductive flashes of gold.

Stephen Hunter picks up a fresh cartridge and loads it into the magazine of his Glock 9 mm. "These put holes in things," he says.

Indeed, they do. And, so does he.

Hunter is the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic for The Washington Post and, formerly, for The Sun. He has spent his lifetime shooting off his guns and his mouth.

It's an urge he has spent 61 years trying rather heroically to control. He's not trying to squelch that drive, mind you, but to command it -- to decide when, where, how often and with how much force to unload. His rage, he says, is the result of growing up as the son of an alcoholic, abusive father -- a father who was murdered in 1975.

Now, it's Hunter's turn to volunteer for target practice. The critic, and his work, are about to be critiqued.

This month, Paramount Pictures will release Shooter, a new film based on Point of Impact, one of 13 thrillers Hunter has written and published in his spare time. He has seen a rough cut of the film and, so far, is thrilled with the film's accuracy. He expresses his pleasure with typical exuberance.

"Shooter is by far the best sniper movie ever made," he says. "I tried to bring to that book what it takes to make a shot, and I think the movie captures the essence of the art form.

"Shooting is an intellectual and an integrative process that requires discipline, physical stamina and attention to micro-details, such as the humidity level and the earth's rotation. The movie is extremely attentive to that process, and that makes me very happy."

Just as the Maryland novelist Tom Clancy is known for his expertise on submarines, Hunter is acclaimed for the accuracy and precision with which his books discuss firearms. Point of Impact, for instance, was praised by both The New York Times and a unit of the Green Berets.

In the film, actor Mark Wahlberg plays one of Hunter's most popular characters, a former sniper named Bob Lee Swagger, who is called out of retirement to thwart an assassination attempt on the president. It turns out to be a set-up, and soon Swagger is on the run -- but not before uncovering a conspiracy with links to Big Oil and a mass grave in Ethiopia.

If writing and shooting are Hunter's twin preoccupations, his novels are where both worlds come together. Both activities are refinements of the art of paying attention.

"Whenever I'm with Steve, I see things I wouldn't have seen otherwise," says John Bainbridge, one of the film critic's hunting buddies and a former Sun journalist. He and Hunter wrote a non-fiction book together about the assassination attempt on President Truman. "He takes in the scenery. He notices things, and he notices them very quickly. It is what makes him a superb shot."

Writing and shooting are both narcissistic (the author or gunman continually monitors his own perceptions) and self-abnegating (he seeks to understand something outside himself). And both contain more than an edge of aggressiveness.

"When I'm writing and when I'm shooting, I can get into a very deep level of concentration very quickly," Hunter says.

"It's not about power. It's not about sex, and it's not about ego. If anything, it's a sense of anti-self. When I'm in the zone, I'm sort of working on liberating my subconscious. It's a vacation from being Steve."

The Steve that Hunter wants to leave behind is a large, round man who looks a bit like the wild boar he once tracked. Hunter's chief weapons (in this case, his wit and at-times lacerating humor) are, like tusks, potentially lethal but displayed right out in the open, where anyone can see them.

His eyes are small, and when Hunter listens, he literally narrows his focus, cocking his head and squinting slightly, as if to eliminate all that is extraneous.

As the Big Bad Wolf once said to Little Red Riding Hood: The better to see you with, my dear.

Antoine Fuqua, who directed Shooter, describes Hunter as "a strategic thinker and a strategic listener."

The author spent a day on the movie set in October, when camera crews were filming in the District of Columbia.

"I kept trying to get him to look in the monitor at was going on," Fuqua says. "But Steve wanted to step back and watch all the people. He sized us all up right away."

In the cross hairs

The thing about Hunter, both as a writer and as a shooter, is that he cultivates merely the appearance of being a wild, unstoppable force of Nature.

Consider, for instance, the beginning of a review that Hunter wrote about a justly forgotten film called Milk Money:

"Now and then really smart, talented and beautiful people get together and make a movie that is literally astonishing in its putridness. Milk Money for example, happily taxes the vocabulary of contempt -- beyond metaphor, beyond simile, beyond existential dread, a movie so scorched and worthless it's a tribute to human folly."

After a review like that (an assessment, incidentally, echoed by film critics nationwide) it's no wonder that Milk Money was declared dead on arrival. One envisions a long, frail strip of celluloid ripped from its projector and falling in agony into a heap on the dusty floor.

But despite the relish, the sheer delight that Hunter obviously takes in piling one increasingly vitriolic word atop another, a close reading reveals that the writer actually is taking care not to give unnecessary offense.

Note that the filmmakers are described as "smart, talented and beautiful people" -- people, who, like humans everywhere, are given occasionally to extravagant folly. Hunter is attacking the film, not the characters or abilities of the people who made it. The implication is that they may do better work in the future.

Fans of Hunter's film reviews collect their favorite leads (the journalism term for a story's opening sentences) the way that other people collect coins or stamps.

"I can still recite some of his movie reviews word for word," says Steve Proctor, deputy managing editor of The San Francisco Chronicle and Hunter's old boss at The Sun. That's impressive, considering that Hunter and Proctor last worked together in 1997.

"Hunter is the Mount Vesuvius of creativity," Proctor says. "He worked enormous hours. I have endless admiration for the volume of great writing that he could produce week after week. To me, one of the sadder days of my career was when Steve told me he was leaving The Sun."

Attracted to firearms

Hunter has written that male writers who grew up in the 1950s inevitably identified with one of three great American authors: William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway.

For Hunter, it was no contest. Only one of those three writers embodied the cult of hyper-masculinity, with the outsized ego and personality to match. Only one shot big game in Africa. Only one stood for the three virtues that Hunter celebrates in his novels: duty, courage and stamina.

"I refer to myself as Hemingway Lite," Hunter says. "He lived on Planet Earth, and I live on Planet Steve. He was the reason I had to go to Africa and shoot a water buffalo.

"I understand that he was a monster and that he betrayed everything and everybody. I look at him as an almost comic pastiche of male pathologies, and I feel some of those same tendencies in me. The difference between me and Hemingway was that he had courage, and I have Prozac."

That sounds like a joke, but it's not. Hunter has been taking the anti-depressant for about a dozen years and finds it enormously helpful.

"Prozac takes just the little tip off the anger for me," he says.

Hunter was born in Kansas City, Mo., the oldest of four children, and grew up in suburban Chicago, the birthplace of his hero, Hemingway. His father, Charles Francis Hunter, was a professor of radio, television and film at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

Young Stephen was raised in a politically liberal household where guns were strictly taboo. No wonder the boy found them irresistible.

"I had an immediate and almost genetic attachment to guns from a very early age," he says. "My father was terrified of guns, and he always forbade me from having any. So, I drew pictures of them constantly, from the time I was about 4 years old."

He speculates that his fascination with pistols, revolvers and rifles sprang from a small boy's wish to protect himself.

"My father was a drunk who was abusive physically and psychologically," Hunter says. "He beat us with belts on our legs, backs and arms. Today, he'd be arrested. But it wasn't so much the physical aspect of the abuse that was so damaging; it was feeling the full weight of a man's rage used to dominate a child. It was feeling a man gripping you so hard he left bruises on your arms while he was working you over with a belt."

It's easy, then, to understand why the culture of violence pervades Hunter's books. While he doesn't write about child abuse, he creates environments in which similar emotions are engendered -- environments so dangerous and chaotic that people can be blown to smithereens for putting down their foot where they shouldn't.

Click of the trigger

After his graduation from Northwestern University in 1968 with a degree in journalism, Hunter was drafted into the U.S. Army. He spent the next two years as a ceremonial soldier in the Old Guard, where his main duty, he says, was burying soldiers in Arlington National Cemetery.

In 1971, he joined the Sun as a copy editor. It wasn't until the early 1980s, when Hunter was on the verge of being named the paper's movie critic, that he got in touch with his inner gunslinger.

He arrived about 40 minutes early for a film screening and, to kill time, decided to browse in a nearby weapons and ammunition store. He found a copy of a gun magazine and read it, he says, until he wore the ink off the pages.

"I liken that experience to someone discovering that he is a gay man," Hunter says.

"You have all these feelings that society tells you are wrong, that you shouldn't have, so you hide them. But, one day, you realize that you have to be who you are. And you come out of the closet -- or in my case, you go into the gun store."

Soon, Hunter was lobbying hard to persuade his then-wife, Lucy (an elementary school teacher whom he'd married in 1969) to allow him to buy his first pistol, a Taurus PT-99. Eventually, he convinced her that a gun wouldn't endanger their young son and daughter.

Hunter's family changed somewhat in the ensuing decades. He and Lucy divorced, and he now is married to Sun columnist Jean Marbella. His son, Jake, a trader in New York, and daughter, Amy, a budding journalist in California, left home long ago. And today, Hunter owns roughly two-dozen firearms.

"Guns are extremely charismatic and very demanding," he says. "They have personalities, and they also have messages and meanings. Owning a fine gun is very much like owning a fine violin."

And by all accounts, he performs skillfully on his chosen instrument.

"He's an extremely good shot," says Ed DeCarlo, who manages On Target, where Hunter shoots three to four times a week. "On a scale of one to 10," -- with one being the most accurate -- "I'd rank him about a 2+. He works at it. That's the secret of being a good shooter."

It's possible, also, that the death of Hunter's father freed him up to develop this skill. Now, he never had to fear that he'd be tempted to use a weapon inappropriately.

Charles Hunter's body was found on Nov. 19, 1975, outside a rooming house in a depressed Chicago neighborhood. Police said that he'd been pushed from a third-floor window after he was robbed of $30 by two male prostitutes.

"My father turned out to be gay," Hunter says. "The funny thing was that his death was his greatest gift to us. It explained so much about what was wrong with him, why he was so angry and violent all the time."

Sure-fire fiction

In 1980, Hunter published his first book, The Master Sniper. Each of his novels, he says, is inspired by a different gun. Hunter thinks of Pale Horse Riding as his revolver book; Hot Springs is about the Thompson submachine gun.

By his own admission, Hunter doesn't write female characters well. And it may be that this shortcoming in a writer so talented explains why such books as The Master Sniper are considered genre fiction instead of literature.

"The ability to empathize with and understand all kinds of characters is the difference between popular writing and serious fiction," says Proctor, Hunter's former boss. "Maybe this will be a growth area for Steve."

For his part, Hunter isn't sure that he wants to write literary fiction, his admiration for such authors as Hemingway and John LeCarre notwithstanding.

"To me, 'literature' means a book without a gunfight," he says. "I couldn't write a book without action scenes. That's what I see first and feel most passionately."

And in his "other" writing life, Hunter has won the highest professional accolades. In 2003, he received the Pulitzer Prize for "his authoritative film criticism that is both intellectually rewarding and a pleasure to read," according to the official citation.

This fall, he's coming out with his 14th novel, The 47th Samurai, also featuring Bob Lee Swagger. But what astounds him the most is that his movie is about to be released.

Point of Impact was under option for 13 years. The project went through two studios, four or five directors, and half-a-dozen scripts. Rumored stars included Robert Redford, Tommy Lee Jones and Joaquin Phoenix.

"What I feel more than anything is amazement," says Hunter, who for 30 years has watched Hollywood insiders (which he definitely is not) struggle, and fail, to get their movies made.

"It's almost like there are all these projects in development floating around in a parallel universe. Then, one movie breaks through into this world and is about to be released, and it's mine. That seems like some kind of miracle."

To accomplish all he does, Hunter divides his schedule into segments. Days, he works at the Post. Each night, he writes for 20 to 90 minutes at a stretch. Early mornings, he often gets off a quick 50 or 100 rounds at On Target. He finds that puts him in a good frame of mind for the rest of the day.

"You can live with anger and dominate it, or you can let it dominate you," he says. "I want very much not to be the man who is angry, seething and bitter, and who betrays everybody. I want very much to control my anger."

Hunter takes the safety off the sleek, black Glock 9mm, pausing for just a moment to feel the way it nestles into his palm, almost as if he and the pistol were shaking hands.

Then he cocks the trigger.

Ready. Aim. Fire.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

ONLINE:

To view a trailer of "Shooter," adapted from a Stephen Hunter novel, go to baltimoresun.com / shooter

Stephen Hunter

Born:

March 25, 1946, in Kansas City, Mo.

Residence:

Federal Hill

Occupation:

Film critic at The Washington Post; former film critic at The Sun

Awards:

2003 Pulitzer Prize for criticism

Education:

Bachelor's degree in journalism from Northwestern University in 1968

Military service:

U.S. Army, infantry, 1968-1970

Personal:

Married to Sun columnist Jean Marbella. Two grown children from a previous marriage.

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