Havana — Stephen Hunter

First, a bit of background about this series of novels. Stephen Hunter has two main characters: Earl Swagger, a veteran of WWII, a state trooper, tough, quiet, capable, tormented. Earl has a son, Bob Lee, who follows in his father’s footsteps in most things. In Vietnam, Bob Lee (trained as a sniper) is known as Bob the Nailer. The first novel in the Bob Lee series starts twenty years later, when he is reluctantly drawn out of retirement.

Here’s the challenge: Hunter jumps around in time, and back and forth between related storylines. My strong advice is to read the novels in the order you see here, although it will seem at first that Dirty White Boys doesn’t belong where I’ve put it. It does. You won’t see why until Black Light, and you won’t appreciate Black Light unless you read Dirty White Boys first. Unfortunately there’s almost no indication of this when you pick up on the books in a bookstore, and you might somehow miss what can only be called a near-classical tragedy if certain things don’t happen in order. So I’m telling you. My suggestion would also be to read the Earl Swagger books before the Bob Lee books. But that’s not strictly necessary.

Bob Lee Swagger

1. Point of Impact (1993)
2. Dirty White Boys (1994)
3. Black Light (1996)
4. Time to Hunt (1998)

Earl Swagger

1. Hot Springs (2000)

2. Pale Horse Coming (2001)

3. Havana (2003)

So you’ve got two interrelated series of books about a father and a son, jumping around in time. Why bother? Because when Hunter is on top of his game, these are fantastic stories. Bob Lee and Earl are both fascinating, frustrating, engaging, over the top and believable at the same time. Earl’s difficult boyhood (which makes for some of the best reading in the series) shores up what might otherwise feel like Hunter’s fraught characterization.

However. The novels are not all equal (and how could they be?) Dirty White Boys has one of the most provocative opening paragraphs I’ve ever run into. It’s a great story, flawed by what I can only call a shallow characterization of a mentally disabled character and Hunter’s (failed) attempt to portray his inner monologue.

Havana, which is the newest in the series, was a disappointment to me for a couple of reasons. First, it feels rushed and under-edited. There are passages that are simply hard to read. There are two-dimensional characterizations and passages of dialog which border on the cartoonish. (It pains me to say that, but I must.) There is a lack of cohesiveness in the subsidiary plot lines. And still Earl is there, and I am as drawn to him as I have ever been to a character. Unfortunately, given Hunter’s back and forth, I know what’s ahead for Earl in the near future, and it gives this novel an edge I’d rather have done without.

I’m the first to admit that I have a weak spot the size of Wyoming when it comes to strong, quiet, capable, physical men. Bob Lee and Earl fit that bill exactly, and Hunter tells their stories with the kind of sharp authority, intelligence and wit they deserve. Except that this time, he fumbled a little. I’m hoping and trusting he can recover.