Guns and the American Imagination

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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.

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About BettyJoyce Nash and Deirdra McAfee

BettyJoyce writes lit-fiction and journalism; she teaches at WriterHouse in Charlottesville, Va. Deirdra McAfee writes lit-fiction, and teaches at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond, Va.
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