Stephen Hunter, known to many: former Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic of the Washington Post and dogged journalist of Baltimore Sun, prolific author of the Bob Lee and Earl Swagger novels well-worn and dog-eared by servicemen in the field and New York Times Best Seller lists back home and consummate member of the gun industry, going so far as to argue the validity of 30-round magazines on National Public Radio visited our humble Trop Gun Shop this past spring to grace us with his presence, use an indoor range where he could draw from his holster, talk with us about himself and invariably talk with us about us.
Stephen Hunter can bridge many divides, like being interviewed on NPR and getting Simon and Schuster to promote his book by videotaping him shooting a Thompson submachine gun, in large part because he is well-equipped to. He spent many years in the below the beltway stronghold of anti-gun liberalism, but his toehold in gun culture fortified by a lifelong, instinctive, intrinsic and perhaps genetic affection for firearms. In fact he ascribes his success as a novelist to turning those tables and writing about his passion while still working at the Washington Post, where he was a definite pro-gun minority, but proud to represent gun advocacy. He was pleased to be a man of letters and guns simultaneously. He knew the difference between a .308 cartridge and a .30-06, but he also new the difference between Hemingway and Faulkner. And, again, he felt proud representing that voice.
Stephen Hunter views the normalization of guns as part of our gun culture’s greatest intellectual development in the last 15 years. For instance, AR-15s cannot be inherently terrible weapons if the dentist has one, and the plumber has one and so does his teenage daughter. They’re one of the most popular firearms in the US, because it dawns on people, at different rates of speed, how much fun they are to shoot and how much building their own is a creative enterprise. Every-day, law-abiding citizens cannot be the enemy. Stephen believes this normalization of guns will be the industry’s strongest feature over the next 50 years. He likes to think that the Swagger novels contribute to this same goal; his shooters have wives, families, jobs and are part of society – not some screwball esoteric fringe.
Stephen Hunter’s first novel was Master Sniper, published in 1980, and its subject matter was the product of the times. Popular thrillers such as Marathon Man and The Boys From Brazil were set in the twilight of the Third Reich. From there he developed the father and son characters of Earl Swagger and Bob Lee Swagger, who feature most prominently in his novels. His novel Point of Impact was loosely translated into the film Shooter, starring Mark Wahlberg, and has been adapted to TV in the forthcoming series of the same name produced by Mark Wahlberg and starring Ryan Phillipe with a cameo by Stephen himself. One of the features of his novels that Stephen credits
Stephen Hunter’s fiction is firmly grounded in reality and are at times exercise in revisionism. Stephen considers himself “a professional rebuker.” One of the reasons he writes books is to correct other books and movies. Whether it’s Pale Horse Coming‘s refutation of aspects of The Green Mile or his forthcoming novel, still in draft form, which through the lens of Swagger progenitor Charles, seeks to replace the public’s fascination with John Dillinger and Melvin Purvis with Babyface Nelson and Sam Cowley. In 1934 Babyface Nelson was a stone psycho, far more dangerous and engaging than John Dillinger, who killed more FBI agents than anyone in history. He wasn’t a gallivanting snowbird, like Dillinger, but rather a family man and teetotaler. Charles Swagger, an FBI Special Agent, provides the view through which the reader follows the year’s climax – not on July 22 when Dillinger was killed – but November 27, when Babyface Nelson was killed along with Sam Cowley, a greater hero than the “supervisor-cum-public relations man” Melvin Purvis.
There is something in Stephen Hunter that forbids ostentation. Favoring Babyface Nelson and Sam Cowley over John Dillinger and Melvin Purvis values the serious and sober over the vulgar and conspicuous. Back in the 1980s, when Stephen was seeking to distinguish himself from his colleagues at the Baltimore Sun by writing novels, he wasn’t the only one. Five other journalists left the paper to become novelists. They traveled to romantic locales like Paris or the New England coast to live a writer’s life in creative splendor. Stephen went to write in his spare bedroom. Throughout the 1980s, there were five novels published by Baltimore Sun journalists and all of them were written by Stephen Hunter. Thank God for guns that he did.