In recent posts I’ve been talking about allusions and related devices, such as reference and quotation. Most of the examples I’ve used have come from “high” literature, “serious” literature, but there are interesting instances of allusion and reference and quotation in “popular” literature as well. In this post I’m going to discuss allusions and references in a popular thriller, Point of Impact, written by Stephen Hunter, and first published in 1993. A summary of the book, or parts of it, will be helpful.
The hero of this story is Bob Lee Swagger, a loner, a disaffected Vietnam Vet who lives with his dog in a trailer in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas. In Vietnam he was a sniper, with an official kill total of eighty-seven. Swagger is the central character and also the moral center of the story. Hunter creates his hero partly by writing against expectation, in matters both large and small: he doesn’t fit the stereotypes.
The plot of the book is clever and complex, with several interwoven stories; very briefly, Swagger is framed for an assassination attempt on the US President, in which a Salvadoran archbishop is killed; Swagger is badly wounded but he manages to get away and eventually he turns the tables on those who framed him. Many of the characters in the book assume that Swagger is a stereotypical good ol’ boy, “a child of the embarrassing Second Amendment”; “the solitary American gun nut”, but he turns out to be smarter than the smart guys. The reader discovers that Swagger got good grades in school, and that he was a good writer who knows the rules of grammar and had “a small quiet gift for expressing himself clearly” (130)—though he usually speaks a non-standard dialect.
Swagger is also something of a reader. When he’s on the lam, the newspapers report on him and his life: “They hadn’t missed a damn thing. They’d pried everywhere. The inside of his trailer was photographed. His books were listed: the writers “found it amusing that among the loading manuals and the classic works on rifles and shooting, such a violent man had poetry by Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves, though it was noted that the works were ‘only bitter war poetry’” (p. 245). Hunter is telling the reader something about his hero; does he also expect his readers to know about these poets? He carefully gives a hint for those who don’t know these war poets, perhaps so they won’t feel left out. A few pages later, Swagger himself refers to Henry David Thoreau, but again there is an explanation: “He went off and lived by himself, too, as I understand it” (p. 252).
Other characters also refer to classic works of literature. The FBI agent, Nick, who is hunting Swagger, and who becomes a secondary hero of the story, is watching a videotape of the assassination. “The moment, frozen in the stillness of the videotape, was staggering; ripeness is all, said Lear, though Nick had learned it from Joseph Heller in Catch-22 when Snowden died in the back of the plane….” (p 194). Evidently Nick reads, but perhaps not Shakespeare.
The villains of the story include a Harvard-trained psychiatrist named Dobbler (who redeems himself at the end of the book). Dobbler is trying to work up a profile of Swagger’s personality; the narrator presents Dobbler’s thoughts in free indirect discourse: “The man was too much like some kind of exiled warrior—Achilles sulking in his tent came to mind—to need companionship of any kind” (214). It’s not implausible that Dobbler would think of classical literature. Later in the story Dobbler is trying to figure out the allure of shooting, and again he makes a reference in free indirect discourse: “To shoot wasn’t enough: there was something almost Borgesian about the labyrinths the damned things conjured in the imagination” (369). Labyrinths is the title of a collection stories by Borges.
Eventually Swagger and Nick, the FBI agent, form an alliance and conduct their own investigation of the assassination attempt—while Swagger is still on the lam and Nick has left the FBI in disgrace. In the course of their investigation they find and interview a gun collector and hunter named Colonel O’Brien; they find him reading a copy of The New York Review of Books (357). A page later O’Brien tells them that he is now “too old for women and I got tired of killing some years back, so interesting rifles and the folly of New York intellectuals are my last remaining vices” (358). And a few pages later he makes a reference to Othello (364). A little later, Swagger and Nick visit the publisher of a gun magazine, who “led them through pleasant rooms until at last they reach his study…. The room was heavily lined with shelves, and Nick recognized many standard texts of ballistics, many loading manuals, but also Crime and Punishment, Portnoy’s Complaint and The Great War and Modern Memory, all books he’d planned on reading sometime” (384).
The most interesting allusion, I think, comes in the narrator’s description of the assassination itself, as the shot is fired and the Archbishop is killed and the Secret Service agents surround the President: “Mere anarchy is loosed around the podium….” (196). The reader is offered no hint that the narrator is quoting from William Butler Yeats’ great poem “The Second Coming”; here’s the first stanza:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
I think this list covers the all the allusions and references in the novel, but I may have missed some that someone else would catch. That’s just the way allusions work—they are activated if they are noticed, but you can never be sure you’ve noticed everything.
Each allusion functions in its local context. It’s not always easy to specify exactly what an allusion means or how it functions. The comparison Dobbler makes between Swagger and Achilles, for example, can be taken just at face value—Swagger, the Vietnam Vet, is sulking, just as Achilles sulked in his tent. The comparison may elevate Swagger to some kind of epic and mythic status; or it may lower the heroic Achilles; but the reader can also take this comment as a reflection on Dobbler, who clearly doesn’t sympathize with the experiences of a returning soldier—and who probably misreads the Iliad, as well. (Hunter’s book came out a year before the publication of Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam, which uses the myth as a way to understand the psychological trauma of returning Vets.) It’s typical of allusions to be multivalent.
In addition to the local meaning of each individual allusion or reference, there is also the effect of all the allusions taken together. Many thrillers don’t have allusions to “serious” literature, at least that I notice. I don’t see allusions in the Jack Reacher novels of Lee Child, for instance (though of course I could be missing some). In my opinion, Child is a skilled writer, and I bet he is well acquainted with a lot of “serious” literature, but he doesn’t choose to make allusions. Why does Hunter make these allusions and references? What effect do they have on the reader’s experience of the book?
Again, there are probably several answers; I will propose just one. Hunter, I suspect, is ambivalent about what he’s doing. He clearly loves guns, and he resents those who denigrate gun culture. He is no friend of New York intellectuals, but he is something of an intellectual himself, though with a bad conscience. He wants Swagger to like him, but he also wants to show the intellectuals that he can play in their league. His allusions let him have his cake and eat it, too. Ambivalence is not always bad. Art—including popular art—often dances on ideological fault lines without coming to a final judgment. Of course any reader is free to bail out at any point. I enjoy Hunter’s stories, but I don’t buy into his politics.