How High Culture Sustains Gun Culture
Ten Novels in Which the Symbolism of the Gun is Hard to Ignore
As a literary symbol portraying man’s tragic nature, is any more compelling than a gun? A gun lets fear become death, quiet desperation become brutality whose fallout others are forced to deal with. With a gun, the best laid plans of mice and men go much, much more awry—and they do so more suddenly, more fatefully. Just ask George Zimmerman, who would make a fine character in a novel: that gun culture enthusiast just wanted to keep his neighborhood safe, or so he told himself, but did the complete opposite and, with his gun, killed an innocent kid. In general, there is a vast gulf between what we humans tell ourselves we are and what we actually are. We have our myths and then we have our realities. My new novel The Shooting is about the clashing between the myths of gun culture—freedom, self-determination, peace—and the realities all too frequently relayed in the daily news—death, maiming, terror. Here are some novels where guns play a key part in other ways.
Richard Price, Clockers
A literary-spiritual forefather to The Wire (on which Price was a writer), this big, panoramic classic follows those on all sides of the housing project heroin trade—from the aspirational low-level grunts in the pit to the cops playing cat-and-mouse with the ex-con impresario masterminding it all. But most interestingly, it tells the story of a guy not directly involved in the hustle, who lives among it but actively keeps his head down and stays out of it, who wants a better life for his family but who winds up caught in the middle of the frenzy anyway, not because of peer pressure or the irresistible allure of easy money, but because of serious cultural pathologies that go way beyond him as an individual: poverty, institutionalized racism, social injustice. There’s a shooting one night outside a fast food joint. The good guy brother of a known bad guy drug dealer walks into a police station and confesses. Which makes no sense to the detective who catches the case. The good guy cannot explain his motive, he has no prior record. The detective sets out to prove his hunch that it’s a false confession, that he’s taking the fall for his brother under threat of violence. Clockers is a novel about the real Real America, the kind the NRA and gun culture don’t like to talk about—a stressed out, depressed, desperate Sisyphean powder keg where liberty and self-determination exist only for some—and what happens when it’s easier for the other kind to get a gun than a fair chance.
Joyce Carol Oates, Wonderland
The opening two chapters are an incredible demonstration of sustained confusion rising slowly and tensely into horrifying clarity. We follow teenager Jesse through an ordinary but increasingly confounding school day—his father is acting strange, not sleeping, shutting down the family business without explanation. Then he shows up at Jesse’s after school job unexpectedly, tells him he needs him home. All Jesse knows is that his mother is pregnant again, and money was already too tight. On the way home, his father, who has been silent, pulls into a department store and goes in alone, returning with something in a brown bag. He does not say what it is and Jesse does not ask. When they get home, Jesse walks in to a nightmare: blood everywhere, the bodies of the rest of the family sprawled about, mutilated by gunfire. The clicking of his father’s shotgun behind him ends all confusion once and for all: His father has done it, what they stopped at the store for were more shells, because he’d used them all up on his family, that Jesse then himself are to be next. Jesse makes a run for it, his father’s shotgun blasts ringing out after him. He runs into the woods, into life after the tragedy his father’s gun has enabled. I can’t think of a novel that better captures the uncanniness of gun violence as it swoops up from hell into quiet everyday life.
Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
Blood Meridian is a beautiful piece of work, and I would gladly shoot myself through both hands and feet to write something half as good—but it lets us off the hook. Some themes of the novel are ones that prop up our current insidious gun culture: 1) that America simply has violence in its DNA, so we can do nothing about the constant bloodshed in our churches, schools, movie theaters, shopping malls, because it is who we always have been and always will be; 2) that the natural universe is indifferent to us as individuals, and we are therefore on our own to defend ourselves against evil and death (which reign supreme) or we will be buried beneath the dirt and forgotten by time. In fact, Americans are not any more violent than any other culture, and we never have been. The American West wasn’t nearly as violent as our art has portrayed it. Guns are not part of us: We did not become a gun culture until the Industrial Revolution gave birth to the gun industry, which then needed to create a market for its wares, which were piling up unsold. And, as far as individuals being all alone in an indifferent universe: every action has a reaction—everything we do has a repercussion elsewhere in the universe, for another person. At any given moment, there are so many unseen cosmic mechanisms acting and reacting on us and around us that determine the present and the future. Self-determination is impossible, let alone from simply owning a gun. Blood Meridian is a novel that does not help us as human beings alive in today’s world because its themes undergird a cultural mentality that makes doing something about saving lives from gun violence seem futile, even un-American.
Toni Morrison, Beloved
To enslaved African-Americans, the guns of America’s forefathers represented anything but freedom and self-determination. In Beloved, the story of Sethe and her children in the aftermath of slavery, guns mostly show up in flashbacks to her days as victim to systematic brutality and dehumanization. Guns factor in to every facet of enslaved person’s life: guns are what they see when they even think about escaping; gunfire rings out in the morning to wake the slaves and start the day’s labor; rifle butts poke and prod as they toil, and rifle shots signal the day’s end. When Sethe flees, and is on the run from her gun-carrying trackers, “every sound was a shot.” Knowing these guns are out there is what forces Sethe into the unspeakable tragedy at the heart of the novel. When she takes refuge in a shed with her children, the owner of the shed busts in on her with a shotgun, which leads to her imprisonment for murder. Guns in Beloved are things that take away people’s life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. As they are, and as they continue to be. Anyone who has been victim to a random shooting will agree. Guns are not about self-defense, they are not the great equalizer the cliché makes them out to be. Guns are and always have been about one thing: a way for people to unfairly hold power over others and exercise ugliness.
Stephen Dixon, Interstate
This novel is about a father driving with his kids when two men pull up beside them with a gun and open fire for no reason. This sets off the father’s trajectory into obsessive grief, told and retold in multiple variations, seemingly infinite alternate realities. He is, we begin to understand, trapped in his grief, which turns in on him, making him his own monster. The gun here serves as the medium of random violence, the impetus for a man’s upending. It inflicts brutality out of the blue. There is nothing to be done about it, in this novel, except suffer what happens when it fires. This man’s life is out of his hands and in those of the strangers who pull up beside him that day. This man’s life is those men’s gun.
Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin
What’s interesting about this school massacre novel told from the perspective of the killer’s mother is that there is no gun: The killer uses a bow and arrow. Shriver made this choice to keep the novel from getting bogged down in gun culture, which is so big, so all-consuming that it would have distracted from her character study’s true focus: motherhood, specifically the tension this woman feels between her own needs and her child’s, and the question of who is responsible for the creation of a monster, and, ultimately, how a mother—or, for that matter, a woman—should behave. Shriver, a proud libertarian, has expressed support for restrictions on gun access, but a novel where she explores the violence they inflict on society will have to wait.
Jim Shepard, Project X
The epidemic of school shootings that have horrified the nation since Columbine has led to a sub-genre of fiction about the topic, and this is another one. Our narrator, Edwin, is not wicked but troubled and bullied, quietly unraveling at the bottom of the high school social ladder. His friend, Flake, however, is pretty wicked. We’re not sure Edwin is actually going to go through with Flake’s plan for the two of them to commit mass murder on their classmates—that question sustains the momentum of the novel. Getting the guns to do it is no big deal: Flake’s father, like many, owns several, and, as happens all too often, Flake easily steals them. These aren’t the only guns in the novel: another bullied kid thinks about getting and using his own father’s gun to use against his own tormentor. In fact, all the guns in this novel are fathers’ guns. The fathers never mention them, never talk about them, they do not even seem to remember they are there. This is an accurate illustration of how guns really are in our culture: commonplace elements that we hardly think to question, even as they end up in the wrong hands and do the opposite of what we intend them to do, which is keep us safe. The fathers with guns are comfortable in the myth that firearms are essential to American life, things they are entitled to have without bearing any responsibility for what they allow us to do to each other.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
After Daisy Buchanan, driving Gatsby’s car, runs over his wife, George Wilson picks up his gun and seeks revenge. He shows up at Daisy’s house, revolver in hand, looking for his wife’s killer, and Tom Buchanan, Wilson’s cuckold, leads him to believe Gatsby was driving. Wilson goes to Gatsby’s house and shoots him in the back, from afar, then turns the gun on himself. Could Wilson have killed Gatsby any other way? Could he have ran him over, or poisoned him, or attacked him with a knife? Not at all—this an American story, the quintessential one, so Gatsby could have only died the quintessential American death. Wilson’s gun is his only recourse, his desperate ultimately foolish flailing at a society in which he has no say in his fate, in which, as Fitzgerald writes, people like the Buchanans smash up people then retreat back into their money and let other people clean up their mess. Wilson’s wife is the one they smash up and Wilson himself, via his gun, unwittingly becomes the one who cleans up the mess.
Truman Capote, In Cold Blood
Old wood-and-metal hunting rifles are carried by the decent, hardworking Americans through the woods to illustrate their wholesomeness and virtue. At the same time, the brand-new 12-gauge pump-action shotgun that will eventually be used to execute them sits in a black car with two criminals driving nefariously through the desert. We’re heading toward the dread scenario that happens so rarely that when it does it gets books written about it but nonetheless keeps the gun industry in the black and the NRA’s coffers overflowing: a random break-in on a good family’s isolated farmhouse in the heartland, senseless slaughter. Couldn’t it happen? Doesn’t it, all the time? Shouldn’t we run out and load up on military grade weaponry to ensure we can fight back when it does, because it will? No, it probably won’t—but facts do not matter when it comes to self-defense, because guns are an ideological object, not a rational one. Truman Capote’s well-written progenitor of the true crime novel humanizes—some say romanticizes—the two criminals. These are not monsters at all, because no one is a monster, which does not make their carnage any easier to understand, just as arming yourself against them does not make you safer against them.
Edward Anderson, Thieves Like Us
Anderson was an alcoholic reporter, short story writer and hobo, more or less, who in 1935 sobered up just long enough to write this absolutely badass novel. It follows three armed robbers—Bowie and his two older buddies—on the run through Depression-era Oklahoma and Texas after breaking out of prison. With its gritty characterization, its sympathetic portrayal of bad guys, its fast movement, hardboiled prose and witty, often absurd banter, this is an early predecessor to Elmore Leonard, Cormac McCarthy, and Quentin Tarantino. The tension is in Bowie’s conflicted loyalty between his friends—who, as becomes apparent, unlike Bowie are in fact dangerous criminals—and the woman he falls in love with. The plan is to use their guns to rob enough banks to get to Mexico and live in peace. For them, guns are necessary tools. When Bowie walks into a bank and points a gun, he thinks it is getting him what he needs: dignity, fairness and a shot at freedom he would never otherwise get. That is the myth he is operating under as he speeds along with his friends in stolen cars over desolate country highways, hurtling steadily toward an unforgivable reality: Federal marshals hunting them down, with guns of their own. And everybody knows these guys are not going back to prison.