Old-fashioned hero in unconventional thriller

February 07, 1993|By George Grella

POINT OF IMPACT.

Stephen Hunter.

Bantam.

` 451 pages. $24.95.

Strange as it may seem, not every heart was gladdened by the remarkable international events of the past few years, including the destruction of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

Besides certain members of the military services, right-wing columnists and that bloated welfare system known as the defense industry, those novelists who specialize in the twin subjects of technology and paranoia had good reason to mourn the drastic changes in the world. Without a mammoth, menacing enemy, they were forced to consider smaller and, let's face it, far less satisfying threats to the West or Civilization as We Know It.

The quest for a suitable adversary with access to all the technical research that such novelists must conduct has driven contemporary espionage writers to some extreme measures. Tom Clancy, sometime foreign policy adviser to Dan Quayle and probably the best-known and least worthy of techno-thriller authors, has employed Central American drug lords, Middle East terrorists and the IRA with generally unsatisfactory, if not ludicrous, results. It does seem a bit odd, for example, to divert a space satellite in order to fight (unsuccessfully) a few amateurish fanatics with a personal grudge ("Patriot Games").

In "Point of Impact," Stephen Hunter, whose last book was the Armageddon thriller, "The Day Before Midnight," has solved the substantive moral problems of today's techno-thriller by reversing the formulas. Instead of singing the praises of complicated technology in the service of highly efficient military, intelligence or law enforcement organizations, he concentrates on the efforts of a single intrepid and highly skilled man to resist a combination of all those institutions. He returns the thriller to the individual, making a hero out of a human being instead of machinery and bureaucracy.

Mr. Hunter, the film critic of The Sun, uses the simple and ancient thriller technique of putting an innocent man on the run from a variety of enemies and toward some particular goals. His protagonist is a good ol' Arkansas boy, Bob Lee Swagger, known as Bob the Nailer, a legendary ex-Marine sniper credited with 87 kills in Vietnam.

A ruthless and conspiratorial organization deceives the marksman through a complex scheme that exploits his unique shooting skills and knowledge; they make him the most wanted man in America, falsely accused of an assassination attempt on the president and the murder of a brave South American archbishop.

The basic plot pits Bob against just about everybody in the nation, but of course it's no contest. His courage, competence and resourcefulness, and the assistance of a sympathetic woman and a renegade FBI agent named Nick Memphis, enable him to confront any number of antagonists and situations, no matter how numerous or powerful.

Bob, in fact, joins a very long line of American frontiersmen, from Daniel Boone to any number of movie cowboys, whose hunting, stalking and shooting abilities mark them as superior to the forces of civilization.

These forces, in the form of organization and mechanism, provide the chief subject for the usual techno-thriller. Mr. Hunter does not ignore the necessity for copious amounts of scientific and technical information, but mostly applies his research to an enormous and largely fascinating body of gun lore.

The book at times seems a sort of gun nut's pornography, just the sort of thing to succor the addict through long winter nights and periods of disarmament. It's full of information about hand loads, rifles, trajectories, muzzle velocities and so forth.

Upon the simple plot and the structure of information, however, Mr. Hunter hangs a generally terrific thriller. Packed with any XTC number of shocks, surprises and climaxes, employing all sorts of cinematic cross cutting and shifting of scene and point of view and populated by a crowd of appropriate villains, the novel proceeds at an exciting and almost entirely satisfying pace. Every time some action seems inevitable, the author comes up )) with a way to reverse direction entirely -- all the scenes and sequences, from flight and chase to courtroom confrontation, end up very differently from the way they begin.

The combination of exciting action, technical lore and skilled plot manipulation places the novel far ahead of the others in its field. ,, If it often seems somewhat pat and sentimental in its treatment of people, well, that's a hazard of the form. Whatever its small problems, "Point of Impact" succeeds in all the right ways. It's a hugely entertaining book that should make an equally entertaining movie.

Dr. Grella teaches English at the University of Rochester. He writes frequently about the thriller.

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