Monday, March 25, 2013

Book Review -- The Third Bullet by Stephen Hunter

            This is another of those fictional takes on history, laying out a possible explanation of the JFK homicide.  The main character of the book, Bob Lee Swagger, is evidently a franchise character for Mr Hunter, though I don’t know any of the author’s other seventeen books.

            Swagger is a seventies-something guy who is asked to investigate the hit-and-murder of a guy; this leads him into the JFK mess.  “The Third Bullet” of the title is a Mannlicher-Carcano bullet mounted on the cartridge of a very accurate rifle fired by a super-marksman from the Dal-Tex building, with Oswald as the patsy, LHO thinking that he himself is an assassin run by a Russian agent.

            The idea is that a top-of-the-line American spymaster is worried that (ex) General Edwin Walker, that right-wing agitator, will gain enough influence to drag the country into a full-fledged Vietnam war.  When puppetmaster Meachum learns that Oswald in his attempt to emigrate to Russia/Cuba claims to have taken the April 10, 1963 shot at Walker (it missed), Meachum decides to enlist him to try again and do it right.  This would eliminate Walker as an agitprop agent of the warmongering, Red-baiting Right Wing. 

            (HUMOROUS ASIDE:  I think it amusing that Microsoft WORD allowed the use of the word “agitprop” without suggesting a correction.  In other words it’s in MS WORD’s basic dictionary.)

             It’s simply a coincidence that Oswald happens to work at a building that JFK’s motorcade is scheduled to pass in front of.  So when the JFK route is announced, Meachum decides to up the ante.  Instead of killing Walker to try and forestall a Vietnam conflict, why not kill the president who might implement it?   Besides, Meachum is certain that LBJ would never have the gumption to enter into such a shootin’ war.  (History tells us how that idea worked out.)

            When our hero Swagger starts to unravel the big ugly ball of twine, the now-retired spy decides to shut him down, too.  And so a battle of wits transpires.

            While this is an interesting book and a perfectly absorbing tale, is is lacking in several aspects when compared to the historical events it attempts to “explain.”

             The first thing that bothered me is just an opinion, I guess.   This book’s depiction of Lee Oswald is second only to Stephen King’s 11/22/63 in depicting Oswald as a petty, venal, loser screw-up whose only use to the world was as a patsy.

            Now, I don’t know whether a psychological/behavioral analysis of LHO would disprove this description,  but still!  It is the epitome of author-as-bully to describe somebody this way.  It’s like drawing a mustache on a portrait that you yourself are painting!  Oswald might have been a creep for real, but the hatred that drips from the pen in these one-sided characterizations reminds me of a thirteen-year-old teenage girl with acne, all alone on prom night, drawing “XXX” across the yearbook picture of the popular girl while saying to herself, “THAT will fix her!”.  Such abuse of the writer’s craft shows a streak of pettiness in the writer, in my opinion.

            Of course, the author of this book and Mr King of Maine both feel justified because, IN THEIR VIEWPOINT,  Lee Oswald REALLY WAS the King-Killer, at least in intent.  This makes him fair game for authorial bullying, I guess.  Surely such an obvious thing was noted by editors and commented on.  Was this characterization intentional, anyway? or did it drip unbidden from an authorial unconscious? 

            I am sure that there is a fraction of the American people that believes that we would now be living in the Millennium, if only that rat-bastard Oswald had not slain the Golden King and allowed that other rat-bastard LBJ to ruin everything.  But this is an emotional viewpoint, an article of faith, that may lie unexamined in the bedrock of some folks’ feelings.

            In mine own views, this is really more the mark of a foaming-at-the-mouth hate-speech-writer than the attributes of a novelist whose work I want to read more of.

            As elegant as Mr Hunter’s theory-of-assassination might be, it lays out the events as an improvised hit by elements already in place for a hit on General Walker, a team whose boss is stuck by inspiration when learning that JFK is comin’ to town.

            The problem with this idea is, it doesn’t explain the elements (before and after the hit) that were undertaken by other people to fake and obfuscate.   

·         The imposter Secret Service agents on the Grassy Knoll. 
·         The replacement of the limo’s windshield before it could be investigated as evidence. 
·         The funny business with the autopsy and the forging/replacement of government records/photos/x-rays. 

            All of these things (and lots more) remain unanswered by the limited-hang-out scenario presented by Mr Hunter.

            So, as a book it’s interesting and well constructed.  As an alternate theory it’s about 50 percent short.  And its depiction of Oswald shows the worst sort of authorial bullying.

What do YOU think?

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© by Mark Alfred