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Memphis Flyer The Heat Is On

Fear and loathing in a devil of a town.

By Leonard Gill

JUNE 26, 2000: 

Hot Springs by Stephen Hunter (Simon & Schuster); 474 pp.; $25

Hot Springs (the novel) Hot Springs (the town) is up to its neck in hot water and we're not talking Bathhouse Row. We're talking casinos, nightclubs, penthouses, and whorehouses, bookies, gangsters, and goons, crooked cops and crookeder pols. We're talking 1946, the year Fred C. Becker decides to go from prosecuting attorney for Garland County to election as Arkansas' youngest governor. We're talking the politics of the future, a future that's now: a candidate who's camera-ready, who makes it a point to project his empathy and concern, who takes credit where none is due, and who's, down deep, as superficial as they come. The politico as schmuck. To prove his worth, Becker needs to take his town to the cleaners, if not for good, then at least for show, and for a good show he needs the services of a leading good-guy and super-sharpshooter named Earl Lee Swagger.

Swagger knows service and he's no stranger to the battlefront. He survived the assaults of his sheriff father by enlisting in the Marines. He survived the assaults of World War II by outgunning and outsmarting more than his share of Japanese in the Pacific. He earned a Medal of Honor from President Truman and earned Truman's added respect by showing up half-bombed for the ceremony. But now he's back in Arkansas, off the bottle and with a pregnant wife, living inside the oven atmosphere of a Quonset hut and with a sawmill job he doesn't want, waiting out reports of a post-war boom that's hitting everywhere but home. When the subofficial offer from Becker comes, Swagger jumps at the mission: to train a group of inexperienced gun-slingers in the fine art of search-and-destroy in the South's spring-fed, glittering capital of corruption. So what if, in Swagger's tour of duty, the body count reaches the preposterous? Law and order will be restored, but only after an awful lot of disorder and a greater number of early, middle, and late sorrows.

Care to cast the remaining roles in this fat, by-the-numbers action/thriller by Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter? Call Central Casting. There's room enough in Hot Spring's jam-packed pages for every walking cliche, every two-bit player in town. Just be aware that the starring roles of Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel and Virginia Hill plus cameos by Mickey Rooney, Alan Ladd, Dick Powell, June Allyson, and "Georgie" Raft have been filled -- by themselves and without a smidgen of believability.

For the sake of believability I therefore cast the dependably oily Zachary Scott in the role of a lifetime: Owney Maddox, Hot Spring's dapper king-pin of crime, Siegel's nemesis, and the proud owner of (get this) a masterpiece of early Cubist painting by Georges Braque. The picture leads to Maddox' ultimate undoing, but it's Swagger and his boys who work his and perhaps your last nerve in the lengthy meantime. (On the ballistics of seemingly every firearm known to man, circa 1940s, you cannot do better than this book. Sorry, no bazookas. On the number of men shown shot to hell, grab a calculator.)

As Hunter points out in his Acknowledgments, in 1946 a "veterans' revolt," under the direction of a "heroic" prosecuting attorney, did rid Hot Springs of mob-controlled betting in Arkansas' "most colorful town." "However intense it was," he adds, "it was not nearly so violent as I have made it out to be. ... So I take pains to separate the real historical antecedents from my grossly fictionalized versions of them. Hot Springs is meant to reflect not the reality of the GI Revolt but only my fabrications upon its themes. ... [W]henever stuck between the cool plot twist and the record [I] choose the former ... ." Hunter was apparently "stuck" a great deal.

So with the author's own admission in mind, we'd do better to leave off believability altogether and give to Hot Springs what it does have going for it: mountainous plot twists that can't for an instant leave well enough alone. When stuck between the merely implausible and the positively impossible, Hunter, good on his word, chooses the latter. Whether to keep you on the edge of your seat or to set your teeth on edge is for fans of the hard-boiled to decide and decide what is and isn't "cool."

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