Which poses a challenge: Who wants to turn from the looping clips of dying children to the pages of novels that reenact those same horrors? Or, to put it another way: Who wants to read about a dystopia during the apocalypse?
These three writers confront that dilemma in different ways. They don’t all hit the target, but to varying degrees they help clarify the cataclysm we’ve grown inured to in the face of a firearms lobby whose clergy of zealots promotes a pitiless ideology. As tens of thousands of brave students and their supporters gather in Washington this weekend, one of these novels might speak to your own thirst for insight on America’s open wound.
Steve Israel, a former congressman from New York, takes aim at the NRA with a goofy satire called Big Guns , forthcoming April 17. This is Israel’s second novel, a follow-up to “The Global War on Morris,” his comedy about Washington’s bungling response to terrorism. Clearly, 16 years in the House provided him with a graduate education on the cozy relationship between America’s business leaders and our political representatives.
As “Big Guns” opens, the mayor of Chicago demands a national ban on handguns, which triggers a wave of calls for greater gun control around the country. In a panic, the chairman of Cogsworth International Arms launches a countercampaign to pass federal legislation “requiring that every American own a gun . . . with fines if you’re caught without one.” The chairman is assisted by a band of political prostitutes and racist fanatics, including a Hollywood has-been with the cold, dead hands of Charlton Heston. “His proudest title,” Israel notes, “was National Chairman of the American Gun Owners Defense,” which, of course, goes by the acronym “AGOD.”
Israel reportedly wrote his previous novel largely on a cellphone, which may have accounted for that book’s antic comedy. His new novel is a more polished affair, but also flatter. Too often the humor shoots blanks: e.g. “An investigation revealed that 40 percent of absentee ballots had been cast from the grave, giving new meaning to the political phrase ‘low voter turnout.’ ” Where we crave something subversive and shocking, a satire commensurate to the American carnage, we get, instead, one-liners that feel Bob-Hope-fresh. And ridiculous as the characters in “Big Guns” are, they pale next to the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre or politicians like Marco Rubio and Rob Portman, who tweet their prayers at grieving parents while accepting millions from the gun lobby.
Jennifer Clement, the president of PEN International, offers an entirely different experience in her haunting new novel, Gun Love . Its hushed poetic pages tell the story of a girl named Pearl who has lived her whole life with her mother in a broken-down car in a Florida trailer park. “Animal Kingdom and the Magic Kingdom were miles away,” Pearl says. “We were nowhere. . . . Life was always like shoes on the wrong foot.”
“Gun Love” draws a vision of poverty far from urban America; here, children interact with public education only sporadically, and their parents have little access to steady work or medical care. Pearl’s world, an enclave of subsistence living, is fenced in by paranoia.
“There was always someone skulking around with an itchy trigger finger,” Pearl says. “In our part of Florida things were always being gifted a bullet just for the sake of it.” Entertainment is limited. “Men who lived in town like to go down to the river with a cooler full of beers and their pistols and shotguns. They would drink beer and shoot at the water over and over again just in case there were alligators in there.”
Police and social workers would rather ignore these folks because their problems are intractable — and, frankly, because they’re all armed. This is a realm in which instruments of death are the measure of all things. “My body was as long as a hunting rifle,” Pearl notes.
There’s an echo of Emma Donoghue’s “Room” in this story. Pearl speaks in a raw voice that can sound awkward one moment and precocious the next — a wholly believable consciousness for a child raised in such strange, constrained circumstances. “I was so grateful that my heart beat by itself,” she says at one point, “because I knew I would never be able to make it work if I had to do it.”
Full of sorrow and aching sweetness, “Gun Love” provides a glimpse of people who dwell every day knee deep in the toxic waste of our gun culture. They may be America’s forgotten children, but after reading this novel, you are not likely to forget them.
Tom McAllister’s How to Be Safe is as startling as the crack of a bullet. The story’s volatile tone tears through the despair of our era’s devotion to guns. In the opening pages, a young man kills 19 people and wounds 45 at a Pennsylvania high school. McAllister, the nonfiction editor of Barrelhouse magazine, constructs this preface entirely from the breathless cliches of “the playbook of mass murder” we all know so well: “They will call him a loner and they will quote former teachers saying he was bright but shy and they never thought he’d be capable of something like this. They will say, Nobody ever suspected it could happen here.”
But the rest of the novel focuses on Anna Crawford, an English teacher recently suspended from her job for insubordination. In the chaotic hours immediately after the shooting, Anna is considered a person of interest. Her photo is shown on TV above the words: “Former Teacher Had Motive.” By the time she’s released a few days later, the FBI has destroyed her house. The most intimate details of her personal history have been broadcast, analyzed and mocked. “I had been publicly cleared of all wrongdoing, but that didn’t matter,” she says. “My life was now about seeking forgiveness for things I hadn’t done.”
Anna is that most scorned, most unwanted figure: a bitter woman. She recognizes that all our mass shootings have one thing in common, and she dares to claim that our obsession with guns is closely tied to something destructive about masculine sexuality. “As soon as Adam discovered his erection,” Anna quips, “the world was doomed.”
Unemployed, depressed and allergic to sentimentality, Anna offers a vicious critique of her own experience in a poisonous male culture. That includes tales of sexual abuse, feckless politicians and a gruesome media industry that creates an arena of faux debate in which nothing is ever determined.
Ever so subtly, McAllister warps Anna’s little town into a friendly police state, with a growing force of armed guards and camera drones. “It was hard to imagine how people had ever survived without constant surveillance,” Anna says. The mayor admonishes everyone to act normally. “Acting strangely would allow the terrorists to win.”
That acid wit makes “How to Be Safe” particularly unnerving. Anna delivers the most caustic lines with a straight face sharp enough to cut your throat: “In America we send children to school to get shot and to learn algebra and physics and history and biology and literature. Less civilized nations don’t have such an organized system for murdering their children.”
One of the novel’s most mesmerizing elements is a series of short chapterson how to be safe in the modern world. McAllister’s upbeat instructions range from banal to fantastical: “Check outlets and light switches for loose connections. . . . Keep a phone on your bedside table pre-dialed to 911. . . . Try to grow wings.” The narrative is also interrupted by disturbingly frank mini-profiles of the kids murdered in the initial mass shooting. Strafed with details of ordinary life, these one-paragraph sketches are anti-memorials that deconstruct the tender portraits we’re used to reading in the wake of each attack.
Like nothing else I’ve read, “How to Be Safe” contains within its slim length the rubbed-raw anxieties, the slips of madness, the gallows humor and the inconsolable sorrow of this national pathology that we have nursed to monstrous dimensions. Who doesn’t feel the unbearable futility and hope in Anna’s voice when she rages against her town’s plan to build yet another memorial?
“No stone. No American flags every three feet. No ribbons. No priests and no Bible. No symbolic floral arrangements to represent vitality or youth or rebirth. No poet reading a poem about rising from the ashes. No obelisks, for God’s sake. Just dig a huge hole and fill it with guns.”
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and host of TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
On March 27 at 7 p.m., Jennifer Clement will be at Politics and Prose at The Wharf, 70 District Sq. SW.
On April 30 at 7 p.m., Steve Israel will be at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.
By Steve Israel
Simon & Schuster. 310 pp. $26
By Jennifer Clement
Hogarth. 243 pp. $25
how to be safe
By Tom McAllister
Liveright. 229 pp. $25.95