Lit

Review: Lock & Load: Armed Fiction, Guns and the American Imagination

Guest reviewer June Skinner Sawyers is a writer and editor; she has published many books on music and travel, including works on Bob Dylan, the Beatles and Bruce Springsteen. She is the proprietor of the Phantom Collective, a pub theater group specializing in history-based staged readings. 

Owning a firearm in contemporary America can almost be construed as a political act, yet the history of and folklore associated with the gun looms large in American history and, indeed, in the American imagination. One could even say that the words “America” and “gun” go hand in hand, as inextricably linked to each other as muskets and the Shot Heard ‘Round the World at the Battle of Lexington, the opening salvo of the American Revolution. If you follow this particular mindset, having a gun in one’s possession can lead to feelings of power, a sense of security, and the illusion of control it wields.

In “An Act of Mercy” by Sara Kay Rupnik, for example, one of the characters admits to taking the gun everywhere with her. She especially likes the feeling of it bouncing against her hip when carrying it in her purse. “Mostly,” she says, “I liked its reassurance that I could go anywhere unthreatened, that no one could come along and take what was mine.”

Rupnik’s piece is just one of a collection of 19 stories in this impressive anthology of what editors Deirdra McAfee and BettyJoyce Nash refer to as “armed fiction.” And rightly so since “armed” is the operative word here. The writers represented, from Annie Proulx to Bonnie Jo Campbell to John Edgar Wideman (to name a few of the better-known writers), offer complicated stories with complicated characters who are often dealing with conflicted emotions. What the stories all have in common is the presence of a gun and all that it suggests and embodies.

The character of Josanna Skiles in Proulx’s “A Lonely Coast” is a cook at a dead-end job in small town Wyoming who tends bar on weekends to make ends meet. The writing here is classic Brokeback Mountain-era Proulx: hard-edged, unsentimental and tough, like the characters themselves. (Proulx describes Josanna’s husband Riley as having “a thin, mean face, one of those mouths like a paper cut and he doesn’t say much.”) Thus, voices are raised, tempers flare, and someone pulls out a gun or a rifle, yielding to what Proulx calls “the dark impulse.” Some people die, others are injured for life but nobody emerges entirely unscathed. In these stories, as in life itself, there is always a price to pay.

Some characters are would-be robbers, some are victims of failing marriages, and others are soldiers returning home from a faraway war, trying to make sense of their lives. In Gale Walden’s “Café Americana,” the tone is reminiscent of a Flannery O’Connor story or a Springsteen song: straightforward and nonjudgmental with hints of desperation. In Rick DeMarinis’ “The Handgun” the incessant barking of a wolfhound in the middle of the night disrupts the sleep of a married couple until the only solution seems to be the purchase of a gun. A surprise denouement, though, suggests a hint of hope, and even a touch of grace.

The editors note that anthologies in which guns appear usually concern hunting and war; men wrote the stories, and men also fired the guns. By contrast, women wrote more than half of Lock & Load’s stories. The anthology showcases the skill and talent needed to introduce a gun into a story, while raising essential questions, not only about what guns mean and what they do, but about what they represent in the American imagination.

“We began the project soon after shootings in Aurora,” Nash said. “As we gathered and organized the stories, Newtown, San Bernardino, Charleston, and Orlando punctuated our work. Tragically, and ironically, the nation’s worst mass shooting ever took place in Las Vegas on Lock & Load’s publication date. We believe that art offers a way to discuss society’s touchy topics.” Nash and McAfee will be at the Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln, at 6pm on Saturday, April 21, to discuss their anthology. Buy their book and get your copy signed. https://www.facebook.com/LockandLoadBook/

Lock & Load: Armed Fiction (264 pages, $25) is published by University of New Mexico Press. Keep up with the editors here.

Nash, a former Chicagoan, worked at Lill Street Studios before earning her master’s in journalism from Medill. Her journalism has been published in newspapers and magazines, including the Christian Science Monitor, The Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch and WVTF radio; her fiction has been published by North Dakota Quarterly, Broad River Review, and C-ville Weekly. She teaches creative writing at WriterHouse. McAfee’s prizewinning fiction has appeared widely in print and online, in Shenandoah, Tupelo Quarterly, the Georgia Review, Willow Springs, The Diagram, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in fiction from the New School and has held fiction fellowships at MacDowell, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Ragdale, Ucross, the Hambidge Center and the Vermont Studio Center. 

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