I stand next to Baltimore writer Stephen Hunter at On Target, an indoor pistol range in the Severn Square Shopping Center. He casts a pitiful glance at my dust-covered, snub-nosed Smith & Wesson .38 Special, a poorly maintained, wildly inaccurate relic from the 1970s that I've brought along for the day's exercise. Hunter turns away and loads his own weapon—a .38 caliber Colt Officer's Model with a notoriously precise seven-and-a-half-inch barrel. It's a sleek, black shooting machine from the 1950s.
Twenty-five feet downrange hangs a target, a cartoon character of a greasy thug with slick hair, pointing a revolver back at us. Hunter takes aim, and, six quick pops later, a sizable chunk of the perpetrator's face is missing. He calmly reloads and fires again as though he's in a trance. As it turns out, that target represents a lot of demons.
And so, nearly every morning, before Hunter can write a word, he makes the drive here from his Federal Hill home, which he shares with his wife, Sun columnist Jean Marbella, to fire off 100 rounds. Bob Lee Swagger would be proud.
The fictional Swagger is responsible for much of Hunter's fame and fortune. He's the protagonist in five of Hunter's thriller novels. Swagger is a Marine sniper whose prowess with a rifle earned him the nickname "Bob the Nailer" during his three tours of duty in Vietnam, and his ability to rack up dead bodies makes for lively reading. "Official" counts credit the imaginary character with 87 combat kills, but loyal readers, who go so far as to maintain a Bob Lee Swagger page on Wikipedia, place the number at 391.
And it is readers like those who have allowed Hunter to retire from the workaday world of The Washington Post and freed him to pen only the newspaper stories he wants to write—light essays on film noir, or appreciations of Paul Newman and Bettie Page. The trade-off for that freedom is a contract with Simon & Schuster for two more installments of the Swagger franchise. It is a price Hunter seems more than willing to pay, and he is candid about his motives. "Bob Lee Swagger has a reliable fan base, and this is commercial publishing," he says. "I play by their rules; I don't want to be a prima donna. I shoot, I write, and I drink."
Stephen Hunter is a bonafide, if unlikely, literary star. In 2003, after a relatively short six years as film critic for The Washington Post, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism, only the second film critic, after Roger Ebert, to receive the honor. He's published 14 novels, the latest, Night of Thunder, coming on the heels of his New York Times best seller, The 47th Samurai.
But it wasn't always this way. Prominence did not come easily. Hunter was born in Kansas City, MO, and raised in Evanston, IL. His father was a professor at Northwestern University, the school Hunter later attended to study journalism. It was there he started to find his critic's voice, taking advantage of his love for old movies by watching them on television and then writing about them in The Daily Northwestern.
Graduation in 1968 made him prime fodder for the draft, and he quickly found himself in the U.S. Army's Old Guard, the 1st Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, in Washington, D.C. For two years, he served as a ceremonial soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, but later put his journalism degree to use writing for the Pentagon's newspaper.
Most Baltimoreans remember Hunter as The Sun's film critic, a position he held from 1982 until 1997. Few realize he began working there in 1971. It was a struggle. "The paper was completely moribund by the late 1970s," he recalls. "The generation in charge was out of steam, ideas, comprehension about the culture, and didn't have a clue as to what was going on."
He refers to that period as "those years" and his bosses as "those people." He labored on The Sunday Sun's copy desk, an admittedly unglamorous function, for a decade. He credits his later triumphs with those earlier struggles. "When I came to The Sun, I was a real nobody," he says. "That period of nothingness underlies everything I do."
The situation changed in 1980 with the publication of his first novel, The Master Sniper. No one at The Sun had published a mainstream book with a New York publisher for a few years. "It made me different and validated my talent," says Hunter. "Among people my own age [at the paper], there was some excitement. The older folks were somewhat ambivalent. No one was going to show crazy adulation; it wasn't The Sun way in those days, if ever."
And when a job as film critic opened up, Hunter says he "worked like a dog" for the spot. "I figured it was my shot," he says, "and if I didn't take it, I'd regret it for the rest of my life." He got the job.
That's what writing has always been for Hunter—a job. "I always call it 'work,' not 'writing,'" he says. "I never say 'I've got to write,' because it sounds tinny to me, like I'm trying to impress someone. It's as if after I say it, I should be looking around to see if anybody heard me and thinks I'm cool."
He also reserves a special wrath for his fellow scribes who might be taking themselves and their careers a little too seriously. "I hate those drama-queen writers who are always speaking in loud whispers about their agents and editors, begging someone to ask them if they're a writer."
If shooting lifts Hunter's spirits, drinking makes them absolutely soar. In the crowded bar of a downtown steakhouse, the bartender introduces himself and takes our order. By the time he returns with our bourbons, neither of us can remember his name. I decide to call him "Ferguson," after Mark Twain's manservant in The Innocents Abroad.
Belting back his drink, Hunter, dressed in tweed jacket and tie, boisterously recalls what some would consider the pinnacle of his career—Hollywood affirmation. In 2007, the action film Shooter, based on Hunter's 1993 book, Point of Impact, was released. Mark Wahlberg played Bob Lee Swagger. "It was dislocating," says Hunter, recalling the first time he watched the film, "Like seeing one of my own dreams shot from another person's point of view. Point of Impact was a dense book, packed with deep notions of honor and the complex relationships between father and son, so it was a miracle the film was made at all."
A miracle, indeed. It took 13 years getting Shooter to the silver screen. Along the way, 2 studios, 3 producers, and 16 screenwriters were involved. Five or six major stars were considered before Wahlberg accepted the role, and $70 million was eventually raised to cover production costs. And after all that, Hunter didn't like the ending: "My Bob Lee Swagger would never shoot a 75-year old man in the head."
"That is a typical Hollywood journey," says Rafael Alvarez, Hunter's former colleague at The Sun, and no stranger to the foibles of Tinseltown, having penned numerous episodes of HBO's The Wire. "But any writer trying to make it in the movie industry would gladly sign up for that ordeal."
It's the give-and-take of the business, and Alvarez likens it to giving birth. "Writing is a very private experience," he says. "That book is your baby. And later, the studio sends your kid to the first day of school with an Easter bonnet on his head. You recognize him as yours, but all you can say is, 'Jesus Christ! Who let him leave the house like that?'"
The drinks run low, and another round appears. Alcohol has a leading role in the lives, real and imagined, of Stephen Hunter. His own father was an alcoholic, a trait Hunter has bestowed upon Swagger. Prone to violence, Hunter's father beat him throughout his childhood. He was murdered following a botched robbery in 1975.
Rather than turning glum at the mention of him though, Hunter becomes buoyant. He raises his glass, "My father was a mean, alcoholic drunk."
He takes a sip of bourbon: "I might be an alcoholic, and I might be a drunk, but at least I'm not mean."
He throws his head back and laughs maniacally, startling a few of the nearby patrons. Ferguson smiles at us nervously from the end of the bar.
Hunter's father's murder pales in comparison to the gruesome ends he's dreamed up for the bad guys in his books. In The 47th Samurai, an uppercut takes down —and a thrust to the throat does in—the wicked Kondo Isami. (Swagger declines to take the head as a trophy.) In Pale Horse Coming, the malevolent Bigboy gets four axes driven into his body. "I had originally used five axes," Hunter says, "but my agent thought it was too much."
It's that dark humor that is often overlooked in his works, so it brings a sly smile to Hunter's face when I remind him of his writing in The Sunday Sun's old television guide. Every week during the mid-1980s, Hunter would choose a dozen old movies showing on TV in Baltimore and write succinct synopses for the back page of the listing. He would draw from his encyclopedic knowledge of cinema, a necessary attribute of any good film critic, to point out the gems that might be overlooked by a casual viewer.
But from time to time, he would select an absolutely horrible picture, and extol its virtues as if it were a classic. He ironically fawned over The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island, comparing it to Citizen Kane and The Battleship Potemkin. His take on Ingmar Bergman's slow paced Scenes from a Marriage was two solid column inches of "ZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzz…"
We howl with laughter reminiscing over those old snippets, but the moment I ask if his editors appreciated them, the laughter stops. Hunter slams his hand on the bar. "No!" he hollers. "Never! Not one word!"
To say that any ill will simmers just below the surface would be a gross understatement. In Hunter's case it simmers on the surface, and frequently boils over. "All they wanted to do was get the product out," rails Hunter. "I gave my life up for that job and never got any feedback."
Decades have passed since then, accolades have been showered upon Hunter, and still he remains tormented. He describes a recurring nightmare: "I'm running down the hall of the newspaper chasing after Hal Williams, the editor of The Sunday Sun, and I'm yelling the entire time, 'I'm sorry Hal! I'll never do it again!'"
Although the dream wasn't about anything specific, the perceived transgressions were many.
Hunter views such obsession with a sort of gallows humor and recalls the day of April 4, 2003. "I had just been informed that I had won the Pulitzer Prize, and my first thought was, 'Wait 'til they find out about this at The Sun,'" he says.
He begins to chuckle until it turns to an outright guffaw. Then, he exclaims, "How lame is that?"
At the bar, things have quieted down a little. Ferguson pours us more bourbon and quickly scurries away without comment. As a gesture of professional courtesy, I tell Hunter this profile might be unflinching, but it will be fair.
"I won't screw you on this," I say, looking through my notes.
"I'm sure you won't," he replies. "If you do, you know I'll kill you."
I sneak a glance for some assurance that he is kidding. Finding none, I return to my drink and keep my hands in plain sight.