“Part of the reason he’d never talked to girls was because they all seemed to think they were better than him. It was bad enough guys thought they were better than him, but when girls looked down on him it just seemed to hurt more.”
Hashtag Good Guy With A Gun, by Jeff Chon, is a darkly humorous satire on ideas of masculinity in the America that voted for Donald Trump as their president. It opens four days before the 2016 Presidential Election. Scott Bonneville, a high school English teacher currently out of work due to a sexual misdemeanour, enters a chain pizza restaurant with plans to expose a paedophile ring rumoured to operate out of the premises basement. Unexpectedly, he encounters an armed holdup and shoots the gunman dead. The media labels him a hero, a situation milked by his legal representative. Scott harbours many delusions, not least of which involves his unrequited love for Lisa, a woman who dumped him.
“Maybe he wasn’t a very good listener. Maybe if he’d only asked her about her experience, he could have comforted her, showed her what a compassionate and kind boyfriend he was.”
Scott admires Lisa’s looks, especially her breasts, and focuses his time and energy when they are together on getting her to have sex with him. He can’t stop himself correcting her when she comments on issues using arguments Scott knows to be flawed. This irritates her. Scott believes that if he were wrong in the way she so often is he would be fine with being corrected, it’s just that he never is.
Lisa’s son, Blake, was instrumental in the couple’s breakup. Blake was angry at the way his peers at school treated him but could see no way to improve matters other than to take the abuse without complaint. His teachers showed little interest in what they regarded as a slow-witted, smelly, uninspiring boy when they had potential sportsmen and scholars to nourish. All this changes when Blake moves school and befriends Walt, who introduces him to the Company of Men. Blake starts pushing weights and taking care of his appearance, living by the code laid down for the brotherhood who offer a channel for his negative energy.
“The men in the room especially liked watching the males cry, those bearded gender traitors who’d sacrificed their manhood in order to project a facade of virtue. They hated that facade, the men in the room. Thanks to RadFem, modern women had been taught to favor false virtue over strength. In turn, a generation of boys grew up to become weak-minded peacocks who displayed the feathers on their backsides rather than face forward like real men.”
Scott has a younger half-brother, Brian. Their father runs a financially successful doomsday church where they both spent formative years. When their father’s wife decides to leave the cult she takes only one of her adoptive sons with her – Scott. Neither boy can ever forgive her this choice.
Blake also blames his mother for the difficulties he faced growing up. Thanks to the Company of Men he can make sense of his hatred towards her.
“A man needs structure, because without structure, there was nothing to rebel against. And when a man can’t rebel, he becomes complacent, weak. How could he break down walls if none were provided for him?”
Alongside these characters are veterans suffering PTSD and a homeless man struggling with delusions that make him believe he and others are occupied by uncanny beings, possibly ghosts. The survivors of the pizza restaurant holdup play supporting roles, as do the family of Blake’s estranged father. As their backstories and interactions are revealed, the reader is treated to a droll tale of man’s gullibility, stupidity and senseless conviction of wisdom and rightness in the age of internet propaganda and conspiracy theories.
The women in the story play supporting roles that highlight how delusional many of the men remain whatever their experiences. The story is not one of man-hating or feminism. Rather, it is a satire on how hard done by certain men feel because the women they lust after choose not to sleep with them.
“You know what superpower I’d like to have?” he said “The power to make people see the things they’ve done. To make them really understand how they’ve affected things.”
After the election come days of reckoning. Blake and Brian each seek revenge on those they believe wronged them.
“Of course, there were still people with smiles on their faces, people who’d run into neighbors or relatives, still hoping for the kind of consideration they’d refused others for the past eight years.”
Trump’s unexpected victory is regarded as an opportunity to burn down assumptions that have festered and led to the RadFem mess the Company of Men resent and now hope will lose influence. Although masculinity is a key thread, there are multiple layers to peel back in what is a biting depiction of modern America. The traditional family setup does not come out of this well, despite being the bedrock on which many of the ideas fostered by the Company of Men rest.
In many ways this is a discomfiting read due to its recognisable portrayal of men who blame others for their personal shortcomings and lack of emotional intelligence. The inconsistencies and contradictions in their arguments – their blinkered beliefs – are easily mocked, but what cannot be denied is the damage wreaked, not least on themselves.
The story is also engaging and entertaining. The author has struck a fine balance between depicting a brand of masculinity as performatively toxic alongside revealing the innate personal anxieties such beliefs mask.
An original take-down of contemporary issues where underlying causes are too often dismissed as unworthy of attention. A story that stands on its dark humour as well as literary merits, but which offers more for those willing to question why men such as these feel so desperately hard done by.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Sagging Meniscus