Off-target: A Review of ‘The Bullet Garden’
In his 1897 travel book, “Following the Equator,” Mark Twain wrote , “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.”
Recently, I brought some DVDs home from the library. That night I began watching “Idiocracy.” The film opens with two premises: only bumpkins will have babies, and two human beings can be frozen in time for 500 years without food or water, and emerge unaffected from their coffin-like boxes. About 20 minutes into the movie, I realized I was the idiot for wasting time with this ridiculous story and popped the film back into its case.
A couple of evenings later, I gave “Hostage” with Bruce Willis a shot. This time, I made it through the movie, but again realized within 20 minutes that I was entering Bogusville. The twists in the plot, especially in the last half an hour or so, once again demonstrated that fiction these days has absolutely no obligation to stick to reality, much less to possibilities.
Meanwhile, I had also finished reading Stephen Hunter’s “The Bullet Garden” (Atria/Emily Bestler Books, 2023, 480 pages). In this novel Hunter brings us another chapter in the history of Earl Swagger, father of Hunter’s iconic hero Bob Lee Swagger.
Following D-Day, American forces are taking too many sniper casualties in the hedgerows of Normandy. General Eisenhower himself orders his subordinates to find the best shot in the American forces, someone who has the skill to figure out the German tactics and end the sniping.
Enter Earl Swagger, a Marine sergeant and veteran of the battles in the Pacific. Off he flies to Europe, where he encounters not only the deadly snipers in France, but also treachery and murder in London. It’s almost certain that someone is tipping off the Germans as to the tactics and movements of small units, thereby rendering them vulnerable to the shooters who are causing such chaos.
With his driver Sebastian, a young man whose wealth and connections have kept him far from combat, and Lieutenant Leets, Swagger operates under the umbrella of the new intelligence unit, the OSS, that would later morph into the CIA. For the next couple of weeks, he sets out to learn all he can about the deadly German marksmen, traveling from the combat zone in France to locations all over England. Along the way, he even winds up talking with authors George Orwell and J.R.R. Tolkien, ostensibly for research purposes.
At last Swagger discovers that the sniper team is mostly Swedish, not German, and is commanded by Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke, big game hunter, writer and divorced husband of famed author Karen Blixen, best known by her pen name, Isak Dinesen. Meanwhile, the budding love interest between Lieutenant Leets and the beautiful Millie Fenwick, who works in the OSS offices, adds its own special intrigues to the story.
As in his other novels about the Swagger clan, Hunter demonstrates his familiarity with firearms, military tactics, and history. His mini-portraits of men like Orwell, Tolkien and Eisenhower, as well as his realistic and humorous depiction of two rookie G.I.s, are all believable, as are his accounts of the fighting in the deadly hedgerows that summer of 1944.
But that believability is strained by too many impossibilities, and finally snaps. Why bring Swagger to London in the first place? Is there really no one in the entire American army in Europe who has the skills to take out these snipers? And once in England, Swagger spends a great deal of time driving around that island to meet with people like Tolkien. If time is of the essence, wouldn’t the telephone have saved days of effort? And why smear poor Baron von Blixen by making him a killer for the Nazis? The big-game hunter, who died in a car accident in 1946, was approaching 60 in 1944, surely past the age when he could traipse through the woods night after night. What was the point?
Which brings us to the assassin, Mr. Raven, who plies his trade obedient to orders from a shadowy contact. Even though it’s summertime, this killer wears a scarf over his lower face wherever he goes, hiding a deviated septum, a “harelip, it was so cruelly called.” Like the albino killer in “The Da Vinci Code,” wouldn’t this guy stick out in a crowd? Who wears a scarf in London in the middle of summer? Even worse in terms of veracity, here’s the description of his reaction after he shoots at point-blank range a young woman on a park bench, leaving her male companion alive: “He turned. He walked away, cursing himself and his duty.”
Really? He walked away? He sounds as if he were on a stroll to the nearest pub rather than leaving a murder scene.
By now, readers are probably as sick of my grousing as I am. But there’s a principle involved here. Whatever the genre of fiction — mainstream, thriller, romance, mystery — one of the writer’s main tasks, perhaps the main task, is to create a world, a dreamscape that rings true, and therefore a story the reader can believe in. Hunter’s deployment of details performs that job admirably, yet that expertise only makes the flaws in this story more glaring.
In short, “The Bullet Garden,” like the two movies mentioned earlier, just didn’t work for me.
Leave a comment
Mr. Minnick has clearly missed the point of the film Idiocracy.