“The Collagist” review of Lock & Load


Reviewed by John David Harding


“Nothing says America louder than a gun.” So begins the editors’ preface to Lock and Load, a new collection of nineteen “armed” stories exploring a range of characters, situations, and themes. Each story makes mention of a gun, but firearms are rarely the central subject matter. Rather, these stories focus on characters whose lives are in some way shaped, impacted, or ended by firearms. Although guns serve as the connecting link between stories, the collection’s variety makes them feel related but not repetitive. Indeed, the principle of Chekhov’s gun—the idea that every detail in a story must have a purpose, that a gun introduced early on in a story must be fired by the end—is not universally enforced here, and the results are often surprising and satisfying. Far from formulaic, Lock and Load creates a tableau of an America riddled with bullet holes.

None of these stories encapsulates the gun’s destructive power more masterfully than Annie Proulx’s “A Lonely Coast.” It is the story of Josanna Skiles, a Wyoming woman whose role in small-town imbroglios leads her into a precarious situation replete with high tragedy, the first of many scenes of bloodshed to follow. Set against a desolate Wyoming landscape that only Proulx could conjure up, the plot unspools little by little until it has utterly ensnared you. Admirers of Proulx’s work will recognize her trademark style, namely her ability to capture time and place:

There’s a feeling you get driving down to Casper at night from the north, and not only there, other places where you come through hours of darkness unrelieved by any lights except the crawling wink of some faraway ranch truck. You come down a grade and all at once the shining town lies below you, slung out like all western towns, and with the curved bulk of mountain behind it. The lights trail away to the east in a brief and stubby cluster of yellow that butts hard up against the dark.

Proulx thus invites readers into Josanna’s world, and coaxes us at story’s end to examine hard truths about what a person is capable of doing if given the opportunity.

A counterpoint to the unbridled violence at the end of “A Lonely Coast” is Jim Tomlinson’s “The Accomplished Son,” a story that breathes new life into fiction about war and revenge. Toby Polk, the titular character, returns to Kentucky after his third tour in Iraq to visit his recently deceased father’s grave. The death was not unexpected: his father had been paralyzed years earlier in an accident, which might have been the result of another man’s negligence. Alternating between scenes of Toby’s childhood, his memories of the Iraq War, and the present moment wherein Toby mourns his father’s death and grapples with exacting his revenge, Tomlinson weaves together a national narrative of war and Toby’s struggle with his inner demons. One scene captures the melding of past and present as Toby gears up to avenge his father’s death: “Dew soaks [Toby’s] blue jeans. A shiver races up his back and across his chest. He remembers the heat of Baghdad, how he’d crave a chill like this as he lay waiting, helmeted, body armor zipped and snapped. He’d baste there in his own sweat drippings, eyes stinging, his M-24 sniper rifle braced and waiting for another kill.” Toby’s journey to reconcile not only his time in Iraq, but also the facts surrounding the accident that paralyzed his father, leads to a breathless conclusion in this heart-wrenching story of justice and mercy.

In contrast to the unflinching realism in “The Accomplished Son,” Mari Alschuler’s “Revealed” stands out for its presentation of an alternate reality in which gun ownership is not only legal, but compulsory. Citizens in Alschuler’s version of New York City are required by law to openly carry a government-issued handgun. People over eighteen receive one bullet per day to use as they see fit. Now that everyone is packing heat, even the smallest public altercations lead to gun violence, as illustrated by scenes on the subway, where accidentally bumping into someone or taking their seat might result in a gun battle. But there are some, such as Sydney Simich, who save their bullets in case of an emergency. Sydney’s tepid love life parallels her ineffectual career as an employee of the city’s welfare system. In light of the new gun policy, her welfare cases have slowed to a crawl, not because poverty has been eradicated, but because the poor and the indigent were “picked off during the first few months of the new policy, dispatched by the trigger-happy as leeches or ingrates, worthless vermin, or lazy good-for-nothings.” On its face, this scenario seems absurd, but Alschuler so clearly renders a society immune to gun violence and gore that her fiction doesn’t seem too far beyond the realm of possibility.

Unfortunately, Alschuler’s dystopic vision of a heavily-armed society is more allegorical than speculative. My time spent reading and rereading Lock and Load was bookended by two very real tragedies involving firearms. The first was a massacre at a church in Texas, where twenty-six people were summarily executed by a gunman with an automatic rifle. The second occurred more recently at a high school in Florida, where a former student killed seventeen people. In light of these events, I struggled to read this book without returning in my mind to the problem of gun control. In the collection’s introduction, the editors write that Lock and Load  “takes no political stance,” a necessary disclaimer for a book that readers from across the political spectrum might approach with trepidation. Fear not: these stories never directly engage in outright political dogmatism, nor do they take the form of ham-handed parables on the dangers of guns. But even though these compelling stories do not adopt a particular political stance per se, all of this violence, all of these shattered lives, in these stories and in the real world, make it increasingly difficult to ignore their common denominator.

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LaMattina: Cold, gun-metal grey. The sound of fear.

Part Two: The story behind “The Weight” by Elaine LaMattina.

L&L: How/why did you choose the Glock? EL: I chose that gun not only because it’s the make that most people are familiar with, but also because, to me, there seems to be something onomatopoetic about that name: It’s the sound of a cold, gun-metal grey fear.

Lock&Load: What kind of shooting experienElaineLaMattinace do you have? Had you ever written a “gun story” before “The Weight?” Since? EL: After realizing that I needed to learn to use a gun, I went to a firearms training facility in Nevada. I’ve never been so frightened in my life. I was not only surrounded by people carrying guns, but the helpful fellow at the armory had strapped one to my hip. The first time we had to draw and load our handguns, I was shocked at its weight. Once it was loaded and back in the holster, I worried incessantly about shooting my own foot off when I tried to draw it. I told the friend I was with, a retired California Highway Patrol officer, that I couldn’t possibly stay. She insisted that I could. By the second day, I had stopped shaking and was able to hit the target some of the time. By the time we left, I could hit it every time and could do it in less than five seconds. I now understood guns and how they worked and the mere sight of a gun no longer frightened me. I also knew when I could legally use the gun. The gun was an equalizer.

I haven’t written another gun story, and I don’t know that I ever will. I feel that “The Weight” reflects what I wanted to say about guns and gun ownership, i.e., that it is not a black and white issue. What began as a story about a woman who was unwilling to be victimized any further and imagined herself picking up that gun was completed only after I got my pistol permit and my handgun—not, by the way, a Glock. I chose a handgun with an extra safety on it.

L&L: What, in your mind, is your character’s history, besides as battered wife, and what Gun-fadehappens at the end? Obviously, you’ve left that to readers to ponder. Why did you make that choice? EL: I saw the woman as a composite of myself and all women who are abused, whether physically or mentally, and trapped beneath the weight of children. Abuse of women at the hands of a mate happens to women from all walks of life, so I saw her as an “Everywoman” driven to protect her children. The story was written very purposely as a dramatic monologue. Gun ownership is so polarizing in our society and presented in such stark terms. I hoped that this story would make readers think about the possible conclusions and consider whether she would have been justified in actually killing him. What might have happened to her if she took the children and left? What would have happened to those children if he’d killed her? Could she have actually gone through with it? I believe that the power of the story lies in its ability to make people find their own way to the end.

L&L: You included the idea of the Glock as intimidator. Some men use guns this way when arguing with women—display a gun, open a jacket to reveal a shoulder holster. Had you thought about this? I read this in a newsletter, The Trace, a nonprofit news source about gun violence. EL: Even prior to my experience with guns, I didn’t view a gun as an intimidator. I was scared to death of guns, mainly that they could somehow accidentally go off, but to me the man was the transgressor and intimidator. I was able to separate the inanimate object from its animator. Although just a kid, I knew that without Wes, there would have been no bullet in our ceiling. The fear of the object was secondary to the psychological terror inflicted by the person wielding that gun. The police who came to my door when I called them all carried guns—probably Glocks—but I felt no fear other than the psychological terror they inflicted with their inability to protect me.

L&L: The circumstance—family violence—is shocking but not uncommon, though we don’t like to think about it. What’s been the reaction to the story, over time, as gun violence has intensified, even since UNMP published the anthology? EL: There seems to be a bit of a divide along gender lines with regard to reactions to the story. Most women seem to believe that her (the character’s) actions would have been justified. Most men feel otherwise. I hoped that by writing it as a dramatic monologue her thoughts would be easier to accept than if it were a story about a woman who actually murdered her abusive husband. I think that has proven true to some extent. Some have seen the shades of grey. Others, however, are so firmly entrenched on their side of the gun control debate that they won’t even consider any other position.

L&L: Have you written other stories in which firearms are “characters,” as the gun in this story is? EL: I haven’t written any other stories about firearms, although I have written stories where females make use of other weapons. I’m drawn to the varying concepts of good and evil, and particularly where they intersect, as they do in “The Weight.” Those are, to me, the most interesting stories. One of my favorite books, Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, has one of the most vile characters imaginable, Anton Chigurh. Yet he is also, in some ways, the most principled character in the book.

L&L:Any other thoughts about this particular story, guns in literature, or thoughts on short fiction in general? EL: Guns are such an intrinsic part of this nation’s story that it’s hard to imagine a national literature not rife with them. It’s equally hard to imagine a national literature that overtly reflects the current state of affairs. We don’t need more rants about guns. We need thought-provoking stories and the civil discourse that will help bridge the gap. When I saw the call for stories in Poets & Writers magazine, I knew I had to send “The Weight” for consideration. I wanted to be part of that discourse. I wanted my voice to be heard. It’s very difficult to get a novel published these days, so short fiction is the only way most of us can make our voices heard. I think of anthologies like Lock and Load as a conversation between a group of people who each bring the threads of their own histories and stories to be woven into a tapestry that allows both our similarities and our differences to be sent out into the world. Some will look at the front of the tapestry and some will look at the back, but all will see that we’ve come together to create something that enriches our literary heritage.

Gun-fadeElaine LaMattina is the managing director of White Pine Press, a small literary publishing house in its forty-third year of bringing literature to readers from the United States and around the world. She also freelances as a fiction manuscript evaluator for the Korean Literature Translation Institute. She divides her time between Buffalo, New York, and Big Sur, California. Her work has been published in magazines, newspapers, and journals.

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