Book Review: Hashtag Good Guy With A Gun

hashtag good guy

“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

Book Review: Lake of Urine

It is rare in the book world to find a story that is truly original while also being eminently engaging. I’ll resist describing Lake of Urine as experimental because the tale told may be tall but it is droll and never difficult. The author plays with many precepts and conceits, inverting accepted behaviours. Ideas and turns of phrase add richness to a landscape reeling in the bizarre yet woven to plausibility within the world created.

Divided into four parts, each focuses on a different key character. The first is Willem Seiler, a man besotted by Noranbole Wakeling. She is the the overlooked sister of the titular Urine. Their mother – the many times married Emma – favours Urine and treats Noranbole as their scullery maid. Unfortunately for Willem, Noranbole has no interest in him while Urine willingly complies with any and all of his requests.

Willem likes to measure things with string. For example, the depth of winter is determined by the distance that may be travelled safely from home before the cold or wolves become too much of a risk. The depth of a creek may be measured by tying a weight to one end of the string. There is a lake near to Tiny Village – where Seiler and the Wakelings live – and Willem feels compelled to measure its depth. Despite several attempts, which do not go as planned, he persists, leading to a tragedy.

Except within this story tragedies are largely accepted with equanimity. Reader be warned, scattered throughout are acts of violence and other abhorrent behaviour towards people and innocent creatures. Normally this would upset me. Here they are surreal, as are many other elements.

The second part of the book focuses on Noranbole, who has moved to Big City with her boyfriend, Bernard. This section takes a delicious dig at the corporate world and how celebrity, particularly in sport, is venerated. Noranbole is now head of Terra Forma, a company so powerful that it has the ear of the country’s president.

“She was settling into the routines of her new position, having risen to it from the post room in a mere eighteen months and a series of fortuitous events so highly improbable as to defy description here.”

Working alongside her to rewrite the company strategy manifesto is Vacuity Blanc, head of corporate branding. As the board of directors struggles to deal with – or at least discuss in unintelligible jargon – crisis upon crisis, Noranbole gives precedence to concerns of the manager at the Noodle & Burger Emporium where Bernard works, washing dishes. He is eager to move to noodle cooking, promotion the manager claims cannot be rushed.

Bernard’s voice is only understood by Noranbole. I have no idea if the dialogue included as his language, before she translates, has any meaning.

The third section takes the reader through Emma Wakeling’s life, framed by each of her marriages – in reverse order – and the rooms in her house. The setting is timeless – transport by horse and cart but mention of internet. As with the rest of the tale, these upendings of expectation are made to work well.

Emma’s father is a pastor with a particular interest in ‘fallen women’. He educates his daughter from: the bible, his many sermons, tales of those in their locale he ministers to. He is aided by the family’s stern housekeeper. Emma is the only girl attending her small school. All this may go some way towards explaining certain choices she makes in her behaviour.

The final section brings the protagonists back together and is titled Urine. The mayor of Big City visits Tiny Village to see for himself a situation that neighbouring communities have complained of. Rubbish has become a valued commodity. The smell is unpleasant. Prominent villagers proudly take the mayor to admire the art in a valued exhibition.

“”What do you mean, in what way? It’s rubbish. We are literally falling over this stuff in Big City. People complain about it.”
Chuckles from the next table. Bunbury smirks and shakes his head.
“So we understand, sire,” he says with an air of indulgence. “Sometimes folks just don’t know what they’ve got.””

Meanwhile, Seiler is still distracted by the lake. The Wakelings’ lives are about to be affected once again.

It took me a dozen or so pages to get into the story but after this the pace remained pleasingly expeditious. The short chapters and plays on language entertained with understated witticisms. It is certainly not a ‘nice’ love story – there is too much masturbation and violence for that. Nevertheless, it pokes fun at aspects of life taken much too seriously while presenting serious issues lightly but as worthy of consideration.

I thought the author brave to go with a title I found off-putting. Had he not sold me on the synopsis I would not have accepted the book for review. Having read it, I’m very glad I did. Satire can be difficult to maintain in storytelling without appearing pretentious. The author has achieved a fine balance between: dark, quirky, humorous, and engrossing. This is a singular and satisfying read.

Lake of Urine is published by Sagging Meniscus Press