Havana, by Stephen Hunter

Stephen Hunter’s most popular books are the two series about Earl and Bob Lee Swagger, father and son. It started with Point of Impact, in which he introduced Bob Lee Swagger, a decorated sniper from the Vietnam War whose highway patrolman daddy had been murdered in his childhood. Then Hunter started giving Daddy Earl stories of his own. This creates continuity problems, as Hunter attempts to shoehorn incredible adventures (I suspect he may like Earl as a character even better than Bob Lee) into the short lifespan decreed by the first book. Sometimes continuity breaks down, and a new book contradicts a previous one. Hunter cheerfully admits this fact in the Acknowledgements, but he makes no apologies. Each book, it would appear, exists in its own alternate universe.

Hunter is very canny in writing his thrillers. His politics (or so I heard him say in a radio interview) are libertarian/conservative, but he makes sure to be evenhanded with his heroes and villains. The Swaggers seem to be pretty conservative (they’re certainly NRA members), but the villains of this book are the thuggish police of Batista’s Cuba, and cynical CIA agents.

Havana begins in the year 1953. The CIA is looking for a sniper to assassinate a dangerous revolutionary in Cuba. (Several U.S. corporations and the mob are also concerned.) At the suggestion of a young agent named Walter “Frenchy” Short (whom we know from the novel Hot Springs), they select Marine veteran and Medal of Honor winner Earl Swagger, persuading him to travel to Cuba as a bodyguard for a goatish Arkansas Congressman.

This is Batista’s Havana, a year-round Carnivale for Americans with money to spend, and there’s plenty of opportunity for humor as the upright Earl, a solidly reformed alcoholic and relentlessly faithful husband, observes it all but keeps his distance.

But the CIA didn’t bring Earl to Havana to corrupt his morals through drink and fornication. They have a much deeper corruption in mind for him, and he gets sucked into something that, the more he learns about it, makes him increasingly ill at ease.

In the end he chooses to keep his integrity, leading to false imprisonment, an attempt on his life, and an escape from captivity. Finally he’s drawn into a showdown worthy of an Italian Western. (One could plausibly argue, for more than one reason, that many lives would have been saved if Earl had just done what the Agency wanted.)

The young Castro is a character in this book, and I myself would have preferred a little more notice of the monster he was to become (he’s a pretty buffoonish figure here). But I suppose that’s implied for the thoughtful reader. The real bad guys, as I said above, are Batista’s police and the CIA. (I make no claim that the crimes of the police are exaggerated.) This approach will placate liberal readers, but (I fear) not enough to get Hunter a movie contract.

But it’s Earl Swagger with a gun, by thunder, and you can’t do better than that. The politics are secondary. It’s Earl’s old-fashioned, pistolero manhood that really matters here.

I loved it.

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