After my book review of Stephen Hunter’s 2010 release, Dead Zero, I didn’t think that the good folks at Simon & Schuster would be offering me an advance review copy of another book, especially something written by Stephen Hunter. I guess I underestimated the publisher’s tolerance for pain. So it was with mild bemusement that I opened the package bearing the imprint of The Sower that arrived on my doorstep a couple days before Thanksgiving and extracted Soft Target, the latest thriller by Stephen Hunter. I’m glad they did.
Stephen Hunter intends Soft Target to be apocalyptic allegory. For me it was primarily an escapist shoot ‘em up romp with a modern backdrop that – to some degree – is a plausible scenario. It’s not high literature, but I am glad to report that this book is free of many of the flaws that drew criticism from me in the preceding volume.
The premise of the book is simple: a squad of AK-74 armed terrorists takes a thousand Black Friday shoppers hostage in a fictitious suburban Minneapolis mall called America, the Mall, which closely resembles The Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota.
Yes, you read that correctly. The terrorists are armed with AK-74s that fire the lighter 5.45x39mm Soviet round, not the AK-47. This is a refreshing detail that warmed this firearms fanatic’s heart.
Among the hostages is Bob Lee Swagger’s scion, Ray Cruz. Bob Lee is now well and truly retired and does not make an appearance in this book. Ray, now a 42 year old former Marine Corps sniper, is our hero.
Outside the mall the superintendent of state police who takes command of the hostage crisis is Colonel Douglas Obobo. Obobo is the son of a Kenyan father and American mother. He was educated at Harvard Law. He is a “mellifluous speaker and quick wit” who espoused an enlightened approach to law enforcement.
Sound familiar? Try this: “[Obobo is] committed to the healing of America by progressive law enforcement policy.” On the strength of his personal charisma, he rapidly rose through the ranks without the benefit of gaining real experience – until he was appointed the state’s youngest and first African-American police superintendent.
When Obobo first heard of the terrorist action at America, the Mall, he assumes that it is the work of “some crazed white militia, some NRA offshoot, some screwball Tea Party gone berserk. In his mind, one never could tell about the right in this country, particularly deep in the glowering Midwest, where men clung to guns and religion, cursed bitterly as America changed, and still believed, fundamentally, in the old ways.”
Like his doppelganger in the White House, Colonel Obobo proves to be utterly inept and the crisis is resolved by the work of Cruz and the improvisations a small cadre of local police and F.B.I. snipers.
In 1985 I took a university International Relations class. My professor was a retired CIA analyst who required that we read The Empty Land, by Louis L’Amour. To my surprise this western, written in 1969, is an allegory of the Cold War. L’Amour deftly explored the debate of attempting peace through strength versus peace through appeasement. In 1985 pacifist leftists decried President Ronald Reagan as a dangerous cowboy for deploying Pershing II tactical nuclear missiles and Tomahawk cruise missiles throughout Western Europe. The Empty Land helped articulate the strategy behind Regan’s “bellicose” actions. L’Amour proved that a skillful author can create a work of great dimension in the form of simple escapist literature: the dime novel.
Will university professors begin requiring poly sci students read Stephen Hunter’s Soft Target as an allegory for the War on Terror? I wouldn’t count on it. But I am pleased to see Hunter trying to tell a story that delivers greater meaning than “Die Hard at a Mall.”
[Advance review copy of Soft Target was provided by Simon & Schuster.]