Stephen Hunter is the reigning master of the hard-edged, ultraviolent thriller. The best of his novels -- which, to my mind, include Point of Impact, Dirty White Boys, and The Day Before Midnight -- combine technical expertise, headlong narrative momentum, and an extraordinary sense of detail, which create indelible portraits of larger-than-life men who live -- and often die -- by the gun.
Hunter's latest, Hot Springs, is a period thriller set in the postwar boom town of Hot Springs, Arkansas, a corrupt, wide-open city known for the medicinal effects of its eponymous springs, and for its free and easy tolerance of gambling, prostitution, and illicit pleasures of every sort. The narrative opens in 1946 when Fred C. Becker, a newly elected prosecuting attorney, inaugurates a much-publicized crusade to clean up the city. Becker, a sleazy opportunist with grandiose ambitions, hires two highly qualified professionals to supervise his crusade. One is D. A. Parker, a legendary former FBI agent who once shot it out with Baby Face Nelson and the Barker Gang. The other is former Marine Master Sergeant Earl Swagger, a Medal of Honor winner whose tragic history forms the centerpiece of Black Light and who will go on to father Hunter's most enduring fictional creation: Bob Lee Swagger, known to readers of Point of Impact as Bob the Nailer.
Together, Earl and Parker assemble and train an elite cadre of volunteers -- youthful law officers from various parts of the country. Once out of "boot camp" -- an intensive period of training in weaponry and military assault tactics -- the volunteers, led by Earl, launch a series of increasingly violent raids against the gambling establishments of Owney Maddox, a former New York mobster who has transformed Hot Springs into his own private fiefdom. The conflict between Earl Swagger's raiders -- latter-day embodiments of the Jayhawkers of post-Civil War Kansas -- and Maddox, whose troops include a savage tribe of Arkansas hillbillies known as the Grumleys, rapidly escalates into a small-scale war. As the war
progresses, casualties mount on both sides, reaching their peak in a pair of
spectacular, vividly described set pieces: a fierce pitched battle in a local black brothel and a nocturnal massacre in a Hot Springs railroad yard. Eventually, both the novel and the war culminate in a primal confrontation in the Arkansas woods, a confrontation that can only end with a single man left standing.
Hot Springs is a big, broad-shouldered narrative that offers a generous display of Stephen Hunter's characteristic virtues. The action sequences are, as always, crisply written, carefully constructed, and absolutely authentic. Hunter's portrait of 1940s Arkansas, with its farms and tenements, its bathhouses and bookie joints, is evocative and convincing. The characters -- most of them imaginary, many of them drawn from life -- are consistently credible. Included among them are an ambitious, embittered turncoat named Frenchy Short; the assorted members of the savage -- and inbred -- Grumley clan; the crusty veteran gunfighter, D. A. Parker; an imported Irish hit man named Johnny Spanish; and the aptly named Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, whose visit to Hot Springs provides him with the template for a gambler's paradise that will eventually be called Las Vegas.
But the real heart of Hot Springs, the still point around which every other every other element revolves, is Earl Swagger, a mournful, melancholy figure with a complex history and a superhuman affinity for the requirements of warfare. Hunter's exploration of Swagger's character and of the forces -- chief among them a violent, abusive, unforgiving father -- that helped create that character, give this novel its emotional and psychological depth, lifting it well above the level of its more generic competitors. Readers already familiar with the ongoing saga of the Swagger family -- a family marked by tragedy and by an innate propensity for violence -- will find this latest installment both revelatory and irresistible. Newcomers will find it a self-contained -- and perfectly acceptable -- starting point. Hot Springs is Stephen Hunter at the top of his considerable form. Popular entertainment rarely gets much better, or more viscerally exciting, than this.
Read an Excerpt
Earl's daddy was a sharp-dressed man.
Each morning he shaved carefully with a well-stropped razor, buttoned a clean, crackly starched white shirt, tied a black string tie in a bow knot. Then he pulled up his suspenders and put on his black suit coat -- he owned seven Sunday suits, and he wore one each day of his adult life no matter the weather, all of them black, heavy wool from the Sears, Roebuck catalogue -- and slipped a lead-shot sap into his back pocket, buckled on his Colt Peacemaker and his badge, slipped his Jesus gun inside the cuff of his left wrist, adjusted his large black Stetson, and went to work sheriffing Polk County, Arkansas.
But at this particular moment Earl remembered the ties. His father took pride in his ties, tying them perfectly, so that the knot was square, the bows symmetrical and the two ends equal in length. "Always look your best," he'd say, more than once, with the sternness that expressed his place in the world. "Do your best, look your best, be your best. Never let up. Never let go. Live by the Book. That's what the Lord wants. That's what you must give."
So one of the useless things Earl knew too much about -- how to clear the jam on a Browning A-3 when it choked with volcanic dust and the Japs were hosing the position down would be another -- was the proper tying of a bow tie.
And the bow tie he saw before him, at the throat of a dapper little man in a double-breasted cream-colored suit, was perfectly tied. It was clearly tied by a man who loved clothes and knew clothes and took pleasure in clothes. His suit fitted him well and there was no gap between his collar and the pink flesh of his neck nor between his starched white shirt and the lapel and collar of his cream jacket. He was a peppy, friendly little man, with small pink hands and a down-homey way to him that Earl knew well from his boyhood: it was a farmer's way, a barber's way, a druggist's way, maybe the feed store manager's way, friendly yet disciplined, open so far and not any farther.
"You know," Harry Truman said to him, as Earl stared uncertainly not into the man's powerful eyes behind his rimless glasses, but at the perfect knot of his bow tie, and the perfect proportioning of the twin loops at either end of it, and the one unlooped flap of fabric, in a heavy silk brocade, burgundy, with small blue dots across it, "I've said this many a time, and by God I will say it again. I would rather have won this award than hold the high office I now hold. You boys made us so proud with what you did. You were our best and you never, ever let us down, by God. The country will owe you as long as it exists."
Earl could think of nothing to say, and hadn't been briefed on this. Remarks, in any case, were not a strong point of his. On top of that, he was more than slightly drunk, with a good third of a pint of Boone County bourbon spread throughout his system, giving him a slightly blurred perspective on the events at which he was the center. He fought a wobble that was clearly whiskey-based, swallowed, and tried to will himself to remain ramrodded at attention. No one would notice how sloshed he was if he just kept his mouth closed and his whiskey breath sealed off. His head ached. His wounds ached. He had a stupid feeling that he might grin.
"Yes, sir, First Sergeant Swagger," said the president, "you are the best this country ever brought forth." The president seemed to blink back a genuine tear. Then he removed a golden star from a jeweler's box held by a lieutenant colonel, stepped forward and as he did so unfurled the star's garland of ribbon. Since he was smallish and Earl, at six one, was largish, he had to stretch almost to tippy-toes to loop the blue about Earl's bull neck.
The Medal of Honor dangled on the front of Earl's dress blue tunic, suspended on its ribbon next to the ribbons of war displayed across his left breast, five Battle Stars, his Navy Cross, his Unit Citations and his Good Conduct Medal. Three service stripes dandied up his lower sleeves. A flashbulb popped, its effect somewhat confusing Earl, making him think ever so briefly of the Nambu tracers, which were white-blue unlike our red tracers.
A Marine captain solemnized the moment by reading the citation: "For gallantry above and beyond the call of duty, First Sergeant Earl Lee Swagger, Able Company, First Battalion, Twenty-eighth Marines, Fifth Marine Division, is awarded the Medal of Honor for actions on Iwo Jima, D plus three, at Charlie-Dog Ridge, February 22, 1945."
Behind the president Earl could see Howlin' Mad Smith and Harry Schmidt, the two Marine generals who had commanded the boys at Iwo, and next to them James Forrestal, secretary of the navy, and next to him Earl's own pretty if wan wife, Erla June, in a flowered dress, beautiful as ever, but slightly overwhelmed by all this. It wasn't the greatness of the men around her that scared her, it was what she saw still in her husband's heart.
The president seized his hand and pumped it and a polite smattering of applause arose in the Map Room, as it was called, though no maps were to be seen, but only a lot of old furniture, as in his daddy's house. The applause seemed to play off the walls and paintings and museumlike hugeness of the place. It was July 30, 1946. The war was over almost a year. Earl was no longer a Marine. His knee hardly worked at all, and his left wrist ached all the time, both of which had been struck by bullets. He still had close to thirty pieces of metal in his body. He had a pucker like a mortar crater on his ass -- the 'Canal. He had another pucker in his chest, just above his left nipple -- Tarawa, the long walk in through the surf, the Japs shooting the whole way. He worked in the sawmill outside Fort Smith as a section foreman. Sooner or later he would lose a hand or an arm. Everyone did.
"So what's next for you, First Sergeant?" asked the president. "Staying in the Corps? I hope so."
"No sir. Hit too many times. My left arm don't work so good."
"Damn, hate to lose a good man like you. Anyhow, there's plenty of room for you. This country's going to take off, you just watch. Just like the man said, You ain't seen nothing yet, no sir and by God. Now we enter our greatness and I know you'll be there for it. You fought hard enough."
"Yes sir," said Earl, too polite to disagree with a man he admired so fervently, the man who'd fried the Jap cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and saved a hundred thousand American boys in the process.
But disagree he did. He couldn't go back to school on this thing they called the GI Bill. He just couldn't. He could have no job selling or convincing. He could not teach because the young were so stupid and he had no patience, not anymore. He couldn't work for a man who hadn't been in the war. He couldn't be a policeman because the policemen were like his daddy, bullies with clubs who screamed too much. The world, so wonderful to so many, seemed to have made no place in it for him.
"By the way," said the president, leaning forward, "that bourbon you're drinking smells fine to me. I don't blame you. Too many idiots around to get through the day without a sip or two. This is the idiot capital of the world, let me tell you. If I could, if I didn't have to meet with some committee or other, I'd say, come on up to the office, bring your pint, and let's have a spell of sippin'!"
He gave Earl another handshake, and beamed at him with those blue eyes so intense they could see through doors. But then in a magic way, men gently moved among them and seemed to push the president this way, and Earl that. Earl didn't even see who was sliding him through the people, but soon enough he was ferried to the generals, two men so strong of face and eye they seemed hardly human.
"Swagger, you make us proud," one said.
"First Sergeant, you were a hell of a Marine," said the other. "You were one goddamned hell of a Marine, and if I could, I'd rewrite the regs right now and let you stay in. It's where you belong. It's your home."
That was Smith, whom many called a butcher or a meat-grinder, but who breached the empire on Marine bodies because there was no other way to do it.
"Thank you, sir," said Earl. "This here thing, it's for all the boys who didn't make it back."
"Wear it proudly, First Sergeant," said Old Man Schmidt. "For their sakes."
Then Earl was magically whisked away again and, like a package at the end of a conveyor belt, he was simply dumped into nothingness. He looked around, saw Junie standing by herself.
She was radiantly pretty, even if a little fearful. She had been a junior at Southeast Missouri State Teachers College, in Cape Girardeau, he the heavily decorated Marine master sergeant back on a bond drive before the big push for the Jap home islands. She was a beautiful girl and he was a beautiful man. They met in Fort Smith, at a USO dance, and got married that weekend. They had four days of delirious love, and then he went back to the war, killed another hundred or so Japs, got hit twice more, lost more men, and came home.
"How're you doing?" he said.
"Oh, I'm fine," she said. "I don't want anybody paying me any attention at all. This is the day for the hero, not the hero's wife."
"I told you, Junie, I ain't no hero. I'm just the lucky sonofabitch who walked away from the shell that killed the ten other guys. They're giving me the medal of luck today, that's all."
"Earl, you are a hero. You should be so proud."
"See, most people, let me tell you. They don't know nothing. They don't know how it was. What they think it was, what they're giving me this thing for, see, it had nothing to do with nothing."
"Don't get yourself upset again."
Earl had a problem with what the world thought as opposed to what he knew to be true. It was always getting him into trouble. It seemed few of the combat men had made it back, but because he was a big hero people were always stopping him to tell him what a great man he was and then to lecture him on their ideas about the war.
So he would listen politely but a little bolt of anger would begin to build until he'd be off and some ugliness had happened.
"You can't be so mad all the time," she said.
"I know, I know. Listen to me. You'd think the Japs had won the way I carry on. When is this mess going to be over?"
He slipped around behind Junie and used her as cover, reaching inside his tunic to his belt line and there, where Daddy had carried his sap for putting down the unruly nigger or trashy white boy, he carried a flask of Boone County bourbon, for putting down unruly thoughts.
He got it out smoothly, unscrewed its lid, and in seconds, with the same easy physical grace that let him hit running targets offhand at two hundred yards with a PFC's Garand, had it up to his lips.
The bourbon hit like bricks falling from the roof. That effect he enjoyed, the impact, the blurred vision, the immediate softening of all things that rubbed at him.
"Earl," she said. "You could get in trouble."
Who would care? he thought.
A young Marine captain without a hair on his chin slid next to them.
"First Sergeant," he muttered, "in about five minutes the car will take you back to the hotel. You'll have a couple hours to pack and eat. The Rock Island leaves at 2000 hours from Union Station. Your stateroom is all reserved, but you should be at the train by 1945 hours. The car will pick you and your luggage up at 1900 hours. Squared away?"
"Yes sir," said Earl to the earnest child.
The boy sped away.
"You'd think they could supply you with a combat fellow," said Junie. "I mean, after what you did for them."
"He's all right. He's just a kid. He don't mean no harm."
In fact the young man reminded him of the too many boys who'd served under him, and never came back, or if they came back, came back so different, so mangled, it would have been easier on them if they hadn't come back at all.
"You should be happy, Earl. I can tell, you're not."
"I'm fine," he said, feeling a sudden need for another gigantic blast of bourbon. "I just need to go to the bathroom. Do you suppose they have them in a fine place like this?"
"Oh, Earl, they have to. Everybody goes to the bathroom!"
A Negro servant was standing near the door, and so Earl made his inquiry and was directed through a hall and through a door. He pulled it closed behind him, snapped the lock.
The toilet was of no use to him at all, but he unbuttoned his tunic and slid the bourbon out, and had a long swallow, fire burning down the whole way, rattling on the downward trip. It whacked him hard. He took another and it was done. Damn!
He took a washcloth, soaked it in cold water and wiped down his forehead, almost making the pain there go away for a bit, but not quite. When he hung the washrag up, the pain returned. He dropped the flask into the wastebasket.
Then he reached around and pulled out his .45 automatic.
I carried this here gun on Iwo Jima and before that on Tarawa and Guadalcanal and Saipan and Tinian. He'd done some killing with it too, but more with his tommy gun. Still, the gun was just a solid piece on his belt that somehow kept him sane. The gun, for him, wasn't a part of death, it was a piece of life. Without the gun, you were helpless.
This one, sleek, with brown plastic grips and nubby little sights, was loaded. With a strong thumb, he drew back the hammer till it clicked. He looked at himself in the mirror: the Marine hero, with the medal around his neck, the love of his country, the affection of his wife, with a full life ahead of him in the glamorous modern 1940s!
He put the gun against his temple and his finger caressed the trigger. It would take so little and he could just be with the only men he cared about or could feel love for, who were most of them resting under crosses on shithole islands nobody ever heard of and would soon forget.
"Earl," came Junie's voice. "Earl, the car is here. Come on now, we have to go."
Earl decocked the automatic, slipped it back into his belt, pulled the tunic tight over it, buttoned up and walked out.
Copyright © 2000 by Stephen Hunter