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Game of Snipers by Stephen Hunter

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on July 30, 2019

This is the fourth novel that Stephen Hunter has written with the word Sniper in the title, although I suspect that all of the eleven Bob Lee Swagger novels remind the reader that Swagger was a Marine sniper and is still handy with a gun. As obsessions go, being obsessed with snipers is more concerning that most, making Swagger novels a sort of guilty pleasure for those of us who do not think Craig Harrison deserves the veneration that Hunter and other sniper fans give him because he managed to kill Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan from a distance of 1.5 miles.

Swagger is thinking about guns and snipers (I’m not sure he ever thinks about anything else) when he is visited by the mother of an American sniper who was killed by a sniper in Baghdad. The mother wants revenge for her son’s death in 2003 because she believes that when America invades a country, the enemy isn’t supposed to fight back. It is admitttedly unsettling for the enemy to make disgusting YouTube videos, as Juba the Sniper is credited with doing, and it is apparentnly Juba's fame that motivates the mother to ask the 72-year-old Swagger to find Jubba and take him out. At least she’s not ageist.

The mother has rather improbably traced the sniper to Syria. Swagger sensibly declines to do the deed but he agrees to ask a contact in Mossad for an assist. After Mossad is satisfied that Swagger is a legitimate gun nut, Mossad assigns Swagger to track down Juba — which should be no problem for a 72-year-old white guy in Syria. Why does Mossad think an old American from Arkansas is more skilled than Mossad at finding terrorists in Syria? You just have to roll with it if you want to enjoy the novel.

A reader will need to accept other unlikely events, including IDF’s willingness to bring Swagger along (and to arm him, no less) when they raid a location where the sniper might be practicing. That’s fine with Swagger, because as he admits, he loves war and really loves shooting people. Swagger is probably not a good candidate for a nursing home.

Of course, when Swagger uncovers evidence that Juba plans to shoot a high value target in the US, the FBI welcomes not only a Mossad agent but Swagger to help them catch the sniper. At various other points, the police are happy to bring this septuagenarian civilian along on raids and to loan him weapons to boot. In what world would that happen?

To prove what an awful terrorist he is, we are told that Juba once shot a bunch of children on a bus in Israel while telling himself Praise Be to Allah. Being a terrorist isn’t bad enough; the guy has to be a demonically evil terrorist or sniper fans who admire “hard men” might come to like him as much as they like Swagger.

Other red meat dishes are on a menu that is meant for a particular kind of reader. A strong woman is described as having “butch aggression.” A Mossad guy frets that Americans are not sufficient committed to fighting terror because we don’t torture suspects and insist on legal niceties like trials. Law enforcement characters complain that restrictions on FISA warrants are based on “a party game called Don’t Make Anybody Mad” as opposed to a rational fear that giving law enforcement the unlimited right to spy on Americans is the recipe for a police state. Stephen Hunter compares the “busy beauty of Christian religious ambience” to the “severity and simplicity of Islam,” apparently having never seen the busy beauty of the Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul or the stark simplicity of most monasteries. Marines are worshipped because “they are shooters” just as Mossad is worshipped for its ruthlessness. For good measure, a character opines that a Mexican cartel leader is responsible for all of America’s drug woes because drug cartels are part of a diabolical plot to undermine white America. That’s why “Mexicans, they make their living in tunnels” (apparently there are no doctors or farmers in Mexico, although there are plenty of puta and to care about their deaths is “gringo madness”). My eyes began to tire from rolling so often.

At the same time, characters occasionally recognize that the adoration of guns is a path to craziness. I particularly enjoyed the comparison of gun cultists who buy accessories for their weapons to little girls who obsessively collect Pretty Ponies. A few characters also understand that “fake news” doesn’t come from mainstream media outlets, but from bloggers and fringe media outlets that present fiction as fact to further their agenda.

The plot? Well, the terrorist sniper prepares to shoot his target, kills some other people, and manages to stay a step ahead of our heroes while Swagger does his own heroic thing. The reader is asked to guess at the target and, like the characters, will probably be surprised. The terrorist’s motivation is plausible, given that most enemies of America these days, like the president, see their job as making Americans even more divided. The action ending is wild, but plausibility is not the key to enjoying an action hero story, particularly when the action hero is a senior citizen.

Game of Snipers is just outlandish enough to be entertaining, in part because of Hunter’s skill at making the outlandish seem real. His eloquence in describing the mechanics of sniping and the comparative advantage of various rifles, scopes, bullets, and loaders keeps the lengthy descriptions from becoming tedious (although describing a well-crafted bullet as “sublime” is a bit over the top). Devotees of gun porn will love it. But while most gun porn contents itself with listing the model numbers and specifications associated with favorite weapons, Hunter actually takes time to explain the factors that might influence a sniper’s decision to use a particular gun, ammunition, and associated paraphernalia. This is, at least, educational gun porn.

A good many people hold red meat opinions that are similar to those expressed by characters in Game of Sniper. I don’t hold it against a writer for portraying characters who might live in the real world, even if I disagree with them, provided the writer does not propagandize in favor of a repulsive worldview. Hunter occasionally comes close to crossing that line but I am willing to cut him some slack and to recommend Game of Snipers because the novel delivers the excitement that an action thriller should.


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