Pale Horse Coming by Stephen Hunter

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Pale Horse Coming

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The story in Pale Horse Coming has been told many times--Seven Against Thebes, The Seven Samurai, The Dirty Dozen, The Wild Bunch, The Guns of Navarone, and The Magnificent Seven. The central element: a multi-talented group of adventurers is assembled to assail an unassailable target or to perform an impossible feat.

Stephen Hunter's version of this tale is equal to any of the versions just mentioned. The year is 1951 and the target for Hunter's protagonists is Thebes State Penal Farm (Colored), an infamous hellhole hidden up a dark river, deep in the swamps of Mississippi. There are rumors about the racist brutality of Thebes Farm. No one sent there, however, ever returns to confirm or deny the rumors.

It is with serious misgivings, then, that Arkansas attorney Sam Vincent takes an assignment from a northern attorney to look into the disappearance of the attorney's client in Mississippi--his last known address, Thebes, Mississippi. Before Vincent departs, he asks his longtime friend Earl Swagger to come looking for him if he doesn't return. When Sam disappears, Earl, a marine hero on Iwo Jima, and now an Arkansas State Police sergeant, goes after him.

Swagger engineers Vincent's escape from a sheriff's cell in the river village of Thebes, but he is captured himself. He becomes the first-ever white prisoner inside Thebes State Penal Farm. Swagger's bravery and stoicism under torture--plus a major piece of luck--enable him to escape before he is killed. Swagger returns to Arkansas and with the help of Sam Vincent and financing from Vincent's northern client, he assembles a team of men to break into and obliterate Thebes prison and all the men who run it.

There's enough blood, sadism, torture, impacting bullets, and gruesome deaths in this novel to turn away even slightly squeamish readers. They should persevere however. For all Stephen Hunter's fascination and expertise with guns, ammunition, and other weaponry, he also has a gift for character. Earl Swagger is more than simply a plastic action-figure, able to take extraordinary punishment without breaking. Sam Vincent is more interesting and complicated than the stodgy, middle-aged man he appears to be. And the crew of iconoclastic and eccentric sharpshooters and experts in mayhem that Swagger recruits for his assault on Thebes are a surprising, funny, and heroic crew.