Stephen Hunter, a Populist William Faulkner

By , Contributor

Although Stephen Hunter has written a variety of novels, he is best known for his franchise hero, a Marine sniper from Blue Eye, Arkansas, Bob Lee Swagger.  As his name suggests, he is a proletarian Robert E. Lee with redneck pride. Point of Impact, the first Bob Lee Swagger novel, which Hunter published in 1993, was made into a movie, Shooter, starring Mark Wahlberg. Swagger is based in part on a real Marine sniper named Carlos Hathaway, who distinguished himself in Vietnam. Hathaway once killed an entire Viet Cong platoon, an exploit incorporated into Hunter’s novel Time to Hunt.

Hunter brings a literary sensibility to his intricately plotted, densely written novels. In fact, once you read through the series of six Bob Lee Swagger novels, from Point of Impact to the most recent one, Dead Zero, which came out last year, you realize that Hunter has modeled his body of work on that of William Faulkner.

It takes a good deal of courage for a writer to take on America’s greatest 20th century novelist, but back in the '90s Hunter intuitively understood something very important. He understood that if he wanted to incorporate the darkness and the courage that have made the South—and America—what it is, then he had to deal with Faulkner. Specifically, Hunter has taken Faulkner’s trilogy about the Snopes family, The Hamlet, The Town, and The Mansion, as a model.   

The Snopeses are Southern lumpenproletariat, or poor white trash, as they would have been called in Mississippi. Faulkner’s trilogy chronicles the intrusion of the Snopeses into the Southern aristocratic way of life, and then their rise to dominance.  So what Hunter does with the Bob Lee Swagger novels is not exactly the redemption of the Snopeses—he’s too sophisticated a writer for that—rather, he’s found a way to show how  a guy who says “ain’t” a lot can live a life of honor and serve his country.

Bob Lee is a strong, silent type, who often needs legal help, so Hunter ingeniously assimilates Faulkner’s chronicle into his own by creating Sam Vincent, a smart country lawyer. Vincent was a friend of Bob Lee’s father Earl, and a version of the idealistic Gavin Stevens, a recurring character in Faulkner. Vincent is the principal character of Hunter’s Pale Horse Coming.   

Hunter shares the attitude that Faulkner expressed in his famous line, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” The war in Vietnam weighs as heavily on Hunter’s characters as the Civil War weighs on Faulkner’s. Hunter draws us into one web of intrigue after another that either leads up to the war in Vietnam or follows from it.

In short, by assimilating the breadth of Faulkner’s vision into his own multi-generational saga, Hunter has achieved something unprecedented in popular fiction. He has integrated a series character into the sorrow and the pity of contemporary American life, and has helped us understand ourselves in greater depth.

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