Saturday, May 31, 2014

Book Reviews: I, Sniper, Breakfast of Champions

I, Sniper
by Stephen Hunter
You know the drill. Bob Lee Swagger, an aging Vietnam Vet, top sniper, and downright genius in all things involving guns, detective work, violence, mechanics, or weapons is off somewhere minding his own business when some immoral person someplace does something bad. Only Bob Lee can put things right. And by God he means to do just that. I've mentioned before that I like the series although the author is quite different from me politically. If the story is good I usually don't care about politics. I could never have read anything by Robert E. Howard or H.P. Lovecraft if I required all of my reading material to be created by like minded people. There are no writers with whom I agree on everything. However there are limits to my tolerance. This book is not Hunter's best. I, Sniper is the first Bob Lee Swagger novel I've read where it felt to me as if the author was deliberately and too obviously marketing his story towards one side of the political spectrum. Hunter shamelessly panders here. The hero only watches Fox News. Hunter takes shots every other page at the supposed effete nancy boy anti-gun New York Times/East Coast Media journalists and intelligentsia. Hunter has stated that some of this bile is released frustration at being what he thought of as a token conservative at his previous Washington Post gig as well as anger that the NYT did not review his older books. Hunter chides others about their unexamined assumptions but seems blissfully unaware of his own. Previously, Hunter used this series (via Swagger) to give concise if gruff explanations of gun and military culture to those who were unfamiliar with them. I, Sniper often radiates a sneering exclusionary tone towards people who aren't fervent military or law enforcement wannabes supporters or knowledgeable of various firearms esoterica. We don't have Hans and Franz mocking "girlie men" but the book comes close. Literary incarnations of Jane Fonda, Abbie Hoffman, Bill Ayers and Bernadotte Dohm are murdered. A famous gadfly journalist (O.Z Harris) is posthumously revealed as a Soviet agent.

There's also some whining about the fact that while Bob Lee Swagger and friends were bleeding and dying in Vietnam, the people mentioned above weren't.  Hunter even uses "European" as an insult and marker of difference when the hero investigates a crime victim's home and notices that it doesn't look "American" because among other things there's no flag. Right. Because that makes perfect sense. As a reader who doesn't share Hunter's smoldering antipathy towards anyone to the left of Chris Kyle, I found myself wishing Hunter would just go write an essay someplace and tone down the "I'm a real American and you're not" political rants in what until now had been a decent series.


Anyhow, Joan Flanders, famous actress, scion of a famous acting family, anti-war icon, exercise guru, millionaire and ex-wife of southern billionaire businessman T.T. Constable is murdered by a sniper, along with three other aging left-wing icons of varying fame and fortune. Two of the murdered people lived in Hyde Park, Chicago and were friends with and mentors to a very highly placed politician and avatar of hope and change (hint, hint, hint). Swagger friend, FBI Assistant Director Nick Memphis, is tagged to lead the investigation. The evidence implicates Vietnam Veteran Carl Hitchcock (an avatar of real life Marine sniper Carlos Hathcock). Hitchcock was the number one sniper in Vietnam. Supposedly, he was upset that new evidence proved he was only the number two sniper. So he went on a killing spree to regain his first place status. Things look pretty cut and dry, especially when Hitchcock is found dead from presumable suicide. The media loves the narrative of a "right-wing vet baby killer" murdering the very people who tried to stop the Vietnam War. 



The powers that be want the investigation wrapped up. But Nick Memphis is thorough. He calls in Swagger (the number three sniper in the Vietnam War) to review the case. If there's one thing Swagger's good at besides shooting it's putting the facts together and letting people know what he thinks. Swagger finds some inconsistencies. And we go down the rabbit hole of shadowy conspiracy, Washington politics, revenge and some damn fine shooting. Just as John Henry the steel driving man had to measure his strength against a newfangled steam engine so will Swagger have to face off against sniper technology that is far beyond his natural skill and instinct. But he's Bob Lee Swagger. You don't get to have a name like that unless you wake up in the morning drinking TNT and smoking dynamite. Mess with Swagger and he WILL punch you in your testicles/ovaries before ripping them off and beating you over the head with them for being stupid enough to **** with him in the first place. I liked the character a lot more than the story. The reader may learn a little more about the science of shooting and how newsrooms work. I thought the newsroom workplace descriptions were interesting. There was almost too much technical information about guns and shooting included. Hunter uses a lot of misdirection and trickery. There are also some uncomfortable questions raised about utilitarianism. Swagger is a lot of things but utilitarian he's not though the bad guys (mirror images of Swagger) try to convince him otherwise. There's a few obvious plotholes. The title is obviously a nod to Mickey Spillane's I, The Jury. Bottom line is that I was equally taken aback by Hunter's fierce injection of politics and his suggestion that his hero looks like Buddy Ebsen. For all the years I read this series I really had Tommy Lee Jones in my mind's eye. I would be more worried if Captain Woodrow F. Call was after me than if Jed Clampett was on my trail. 







Breakfast of Champions

by Kurt Vonnegut
Basically you should just read this book if you haven't already. It's incredibly funny and sad at the same time. Along with Slaughterhouse-Five this book remains the quintessential Vonnegut work. It's satirical and and full of slapstick. It can be enjoyed on that level alone. Yet at the same time it can also be understood and enjoyed on a much deeper level. Much like Stephen King or other great authors Vonnegut had a singular voice, one that was so definitive and pleasurable that you can get lost in it and wonder why everyone doesn't write like that. I read this book when I was young, maybe ten or twelve? It was one of my parents' books but I can't remember which one. Either my parents had a different idea about my appropriate reading material because I was just so incredibly awesome and mature as a kid or they hadn't noticed I was reading it. Hmm. That's a good question. I'm leaning towards the latter probability. Breakfast of Champions is a book which has occasionally been targeted for banning in secondary schools. It is full of profanity, racial slurs, sexual activity,violence and frank discussions of reality, sexism, gender relations, environmentalism, racism, free will, and more sex. If you are easily offended or prefer that other people do your thinking for you then this book is probably one you should skip. Here's a brief example of Vonnegut's prose style:
"1492. The teachers told the children that this was when their continent was discovered by human beings. Actually millions of human beings were already living full and imaginative lives on the continent in 1492. That was simply the year in which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill them..Here is how the pirates were able to take whatever they wanted from anybody else: they had the best boats in the world and they were meaner than anybody else and they had gunpowder...The chief weapon of the sea pirates, however, was their ability to astonish. Nobody else could believe, until it was much too late, how heartless and greedy they were."
"Sometimes people would put holes in famous people so that they could be at least fairly famous too. Sometimes people would get on airplanes which were supposed to fly to someplace, and they would offer to put holes in the pilot and co-pilot unless they flew the airplane to someplace else."

There's more but I don't want to just quote the book. Who wants to read all the funny parts in a review. The brief outline of the story is that a Midwestern white businessman named Dwayne Hoover (his father changed the last name from Hoobler so people wouldn't think the family was Black) is slowly cracking up mentally. The whys and wherefores are up for debate. Hoover goes completely batty when he meets speculative fiction author Kilgore Trout (one stand in for the author, though the author himself later appears in the story) who is in town for a convention. For whatever reason Hoover is impressed with the financially unsuccessful Trout and views him as something akin to a prophet. He reads Trout's latest novel, in which the author, claiming to be God, tells the reader that the reader is the only human with true free will. Everyone else is just a robot. This was the wrong message for Hoover to get at that time as it sends him into a mordantly funny rampage. And believe it or not that is really a very small portion of the story. It's written in very short bite size paragraphs, similar to the style that James Ellroy would later make famous. This was a very quick read. I must reiterate that I am somewhat surprised that I got away with reading it so young. 

Anyway this book made me a Vonnegut fan for life. His description of how some whites see blacks as little more than obsolete farm machinery or how some women pretend to be dumber than they are as to not hurt fragile male egos was accurate. Vonnegut points out the absurdity of many things merely by stating them plainly and without explanation. i.e. "..Some people thought they shouldn't have to share anything unless they really wanted to and they didn't want to and so they didn't." or "Vietnam was a country where America was trying to make people stop being communists by dropping things on them from airplanes." I love his ironic tone. Hopefully you will as well. Vonnegut used absurdity for sharp political criticism.
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