Happiness Is a Warm Debate
In The Shooting, James Boice takes on gun culture
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I moved to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania in the summer of 2000, where I found myself living among men who were not much like me. My best friend was an ardent gun owner for whom handgun ownership was both an essential part of his identity and so commonplace as to hardly be worth a remark. One day he was showing me an automatic―I think it was a .32―he kept in the drawer of his kitchen table in his apartment, when the firearm discharged. The slug blew most of the linoleum tabletop apart before lodging harmlessly enough in a baseboard. We both laughed it off.
The reason I bring this story up is that I am tempted to put my copy of James Boice’s stunning novel The Shooting in the mail to my friend and ask him what he thinks. The Shooting (Unnamed Press, $16) is not perfect, but it’s been a long time since I’ve read a novel as powerful, angry, courageous, and messy as this one. Boice has no time for polite debates or liberal hand-wringing or timid vignettes of domestic life; he goes straight for the raw beating heart of gun violence in America, and the result is a novel of piercing power and unforgiving vision.
“The Shooting tracks the tragic intersection of two lives.”
The Shooting tracks the tragic intersection of two lives: of Clayton Kabede, the brown-skinned teenage son of a hard-working immigrant couple, and Lee Fisher, a reclusive gun-rights advocate. When Fisher shoots Kabede dead late one night when the latter has unwittingly trespassed onto his apartment, it sets in motion a whirlwind of recrimination, protest, and racial unrest that feels wrenchingly familiar in these convulsive times.
Described this way, The Shooting sounds like a straightforward piece of advocacy disguised as fiction but the reality of its author’s accomplishment is much more nuanced and impressive. Boice, who despite his youth is the author of three previous well-received but little-read novels, is almost preternaturally gifted; his prose has a fluid intensity that is often hypnotic, and his way of inhabiting the interior lives of his characters is unsettlingly accomplished. The Shooting is full of ugliness and pain, but it is the work of a romantic at heart―of a man who believes that people can find their way, however haltingly, to grace.
With this mixture of cruelty and tenderness, The Shooting reminds me―and this is guaranteed to piss everyone off―of Jonathan Franzen at his best. It also feels to me, weirdly, like a verbal 21st-century updating of Robert Altman’s great, sprawling film Nashville―another freewheeling narrative that careens towards a violent denouement, and that features a rotating cast of supporting actors whose stories suddenly veer into centrality. Some of the most affecting passages of the book are the micro-narratives that spiral off from the main course of events, highly compressed excursions that read like little parables of tragedy and redemption.
“The Shooting is too passionate to be satire, and too empathetic to be propaganda.”
It is tempting to celebrate The Shooting as an example of a social protest novel, of political fiction, that often seems missing from so much of our contemporary literature, but I am not sure that is exactly correct. A lot of political fiction seems somewhat one-dimensional, either satirically exaggerated or shrilly pedantic. The Shooting is too passionate to be satire, and too empathetic to be propaganda. It is equally tempting to view it as simply a terrific novel that happens to be about a hot-button political issue. In the end, I think, neither is exactly right.
The reason is that Boice is able to endow all of his nearly all of his characters with a well-rounded presence and reality. Fisher is ostensibly a monster, a man who kills a teenage boy with no remorse whatsoever, but at times he is also rendered understandable, even sympathetic; it’s entirely possible my friend from Pennsylvania might consider him, without a shade of irony, the hero of the novel. Boice has managed to make his mental landscape fully inhabited. Similarly, the gun-rights activist Jenny Sanders, whose life work is the repeal of the Second Amendment, is depicted as an unbalanced and manipulative zealot who regards even fellow gun-death mourners as tools to be used and discarded.
About the only people who are not given deeply rounded portraits―and I think that this, along with the African American argot Boice attempts to reproduce in the section narrated from Clayton’s perspective, is a mistake―are the immigrant family themselves. Theirs is the only experience that flattens out. It’s a minor failing, and one that is perhaps even necessary for the novel to function as the exquisitely-tuned yet unflinching look at the dark heart of America that it is. When Fisher finally goes to trial, the prosecutor mocks his western accent, saying, “are you sure the kind of guy you are? A cowboy?” Fisher responds:
―But that kind of guy’s not real, is he? He’s never existed. He’s a myth, isn’t he?
Lee’s answer is immediate but calm.―He ain’t a myth. He’s real.