Hard Chrome Finish

I’ve just read the new Paul Auster book Bloodbath Nation. This is not a novel but a short work of non-fiction, meditating on the topics around American gun ownership, mass shootings, and the politics of “gun control”. It is stated in the final pages that “I write these words today, seven months after Trump’s departure from office”, so that dates the writing to summer of 2021.

It is a short book (under 140 pages), presented in 5 chapters. Between the chapters are selections of black & white photographs taken by the co-author Spencer Ostrander, at locations of gun-related violence. The captions state the location and number of dead and injured, along with any further details about how many shooters were involved, whether they were killed themselves, and what happened later to the buildings. Some have been torn down or converted to memorials.

The first chapter states Auster’s own relationship to the topic, with a characteristically sharp opening paragraph containing some paradox about the real and unreal.

I have never owned a gun. Not a real gun, in any case, but for two or three years after emerging from diapers, I walked around with a six-shooter dangling from my hip. I was a Texan, even though I lived in the suburbs outside Newark, New Jersey, for back in the early fifties the Wild West was everywhere, and numberless legions of small American boys were proud owners of a cowboy hat and a cheap toy pistol tucked into an imitation leather holster.

We then go into a reverie about the impact of television and its creation of cultural images. Young Paul enjoyed shooting at static targets when he was at “sleepaway camp”, but baseball captured his energies for a few years. When he had a chance to try clay pigeon shooting as a teenager (“One of my closest friends during those years came from a wealthy family, and not long after his father had acquired a gentleman’s hobby-farm in Sussex County, I was invited out there”) he enjoyed it even more. What puzzles him now is that he did not follow this moment of enthusiasm by finding and joining a gun club in New Jersey. So we can see the working-out of the Austerian obsessions with chance encounters, consequential decisions taken unconsciously, and the lives not lived. All of that, along with a family background not too different to the one described here, went in to his last big novel 4 3 2 1, in which the text presented alternative chronologies of the same life across the later 20th century.

However the great revelation in the first chapter is that Paul and his cousins grew up with the great family mystery of how exactly grandfather died.

Years passed with no progress on any front, and then, through a wholly improbable trick of chance that seemed to overturn every rational assumption about how the world is supposed to work, one of those older cousins happened to find herself sitting next to a stranger on a transatlantic flight in 1970, and that man, whop had grown up and still lived in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the same small city where our fathers had lived with their parents in the years before and during World War 1, uncovered the secret that had been hidden for the past five decades.

This is the foundational moment of Auster’s oeuvre: an “improbable trick of chance” is what drives the plots of Moon Palace, The Music Of Chance, Mr. Vertigo, Leviathan and all the rest. Anyone who has read these books can’t help wondering about such hooks and twists in other real-world narratives. What always struck me about the saga of the disappearance of Richey Edwards in 1995 were two details: the signs that perhaps Edwards had been present in his Cardiff flat not long before a searcher turned up, and he was missed by only a few hours; and the testimony of a taxi driver who had an unusual passenger with a lot of spare cash who seemed to be putting on a phoney voice. The latter could be a completely different, obscure story briefly intersecting with a more famous one. Other writers have tried to create novels around Richey, but Auster was the ideal choice. It would have been tasteless to present him as “ghost writer” of a purported memoir, but that’s another unexplored time line. The disappearance of a minor writer is of course the story of the novelist Fanshawe in The Locked Room, the third part of The New York Trilogy, the work that first established Auster’s career.

The Locked Room has an unacknowledged connection in chapter 2 of this book, as Auster describes his own stint of working in the merchant marine in 1970. He encountered a Texan called Lamar who admitted that an unusual facial injury he has was sustained while throwing bottles at a public event where Martin Luther King was speaking. Working on a boat and meeting a character with this story are details of Fanshawe’s life after he vanishes.

Chapter 3 takes us into the historical and political background and runs us through all the things US liberal commentators would say about the issues. Auster is not original or untypical in the views he holds, for someone of his background and professional history, and I don’t think he has ever wondered much about what stimuli could ever have made him a Republican of any variety. “Had I come from a different background, there is every chance I would have embraced guns as an integral part of my life” was noted in the first chapter. But there is limited political baggage involved there – in the 2004 US election John Kerry posed for some press photos whilst out hunting, and part of his pitch as a candidate was that he had experience of the military life even if he denounced the war he fought in. Not all Democrats are urban hipsters who have never seen a shotgun, and in fact Bernie Sanders’s views and votes on the issues have been nuanced.

Auster takes the topic of gun ownership, and the notion of the “militia” back to the Revolutionary period and the truth about what the colonists wanted and how much liberty and equality was available to “all men” from the state they founded. I don’t know how obscure some of this may be to US readers, but it has never been a secret on this side of the Atlantic that a point of contention between the British and the colonists was over restriction of settlements into “Indian” territories. The US Civil War does not get much attention, and the historical narrative moves quickly to the great social conflicts of Auster’s own lifetime. In chapter 5 he considers how the politics has shifted, with Republicans keen to restrict gun ownership and carrying when the Black Panther Party were visible and active on the streets and trying to enter state buildings; once that Party was disarmed there is a switch around, with control becoming a “Left” cause and the National Rifles Association became energised against it.

The irony is that a movement which is predominantly white, rural, and conservative should have come into being because it embraced the gun philosophy of a group which was Black, urban, and radical: the foundational belief that guns are primarily an instrument of self-defense and, to quote Chairman Mao (as the Panthers did), that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”.

But why should it be ironic since it is a matter of record (and footage exists) that the Panthers tried to make alliances with other groups such as the Young Patriots, and argued that they had common, intersecting concerns and demands?  Incidentally it is a typographic convention in this book that Black is capitalised but “white” isn’t, leading to the oddity of “displays of Black-white unity” on page 135.

In chapter 4 Auster cites the work of his friend Frank Huyler, a writer who also works as an Emergency Room doctor and has seen plenty of gun casualties. This leads in to an extended, and gripping narration of one particular incident, “the mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on November 5, 2017, that killed twenty-five people – one of them a pregnant woman – and wounded twenty-two others”. This incident was notable as an occasion when a nearby civilian was able to get arms and fight back at the shooter. The hero of the day was an NRA member who had an afterlife as a media hero, feted at events with President Trump and others. The story clearly fascinates Paul as a narrative, and I can’t help wondering if he considered basing a novel on a similar premise, but decided that the material was too sensitive and would lead to accusations of tasteless exploitation, and so this book is the alternative path which he took in our timeline.

Meanwhile, the fissures in American society are steadily growing into great chasms of empty space.

Maybe, or maybe they could be healing up as the angry old white guys drop out or drop dead. Perhaps the Left could learn a little from the Black Panthers and find ways to talk to those groups that allegedly Donald Trump reached, though maybe he didn’t have as much support there as some people would have us believe.

The picture in the banner is the Kel-Tec PF-9, which is available with a “hard chromed finish”. I only know the name of the firm because many years ago I saw an angry American conservative guy on an internet message board whose username was “Keltec9mm”. Wikipedia articles about Kel-Tec products open up a hidden library of references to Guns And Ammo reviews praising the items in the same style motoring magazines give to the latest SUVs.

The one time I met Paul Auster was at a book signing session at Foyles on Charing Cross Road. He put his name on my first edition of 4 3 2 1, and I attempted a bit of banter about getting him to sign it as “William Wilson”. He didn’t play along. Maybe in 70 years time a reader of my copy will imaginatively reconstruct this scene happening differently, creating another world.

3 thoughts on “Hard Chrome Finish

  1. Chapter 5 is his final thoughts on the issues, picking up from the historical themes in 3. The specific detail in chapter 4 is like an interlude in the argument to show how the NRA and its members fit in the outer reality of mass shootings.

    Liked by 1 person

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