“Effectively a coming-of-age novel” – The Gunnars by Rebecca Kaufman

The Gunners are Mikey, Alice, Lynne, Sam, Jimmy and Sally; they all live on the same street, go to the same school, and hang out in the same abandoned house – and then, when they’re in high school, Sally stops talking to them. Years later, she jumps off a bridge and dies, the remaining Gunners reunite at her funeral, and a lot of long-held secrets emerge… Kauffman’s debut novel stars a bunch of thirty-one and thirty-two year olds, but it’s effectively a coming-of-age novel: they get drunk, hook up, fall out, bear ‘hard secrets’ and learn hard truths, and, over the course of the book (in particular, over the course of the few days, weeks and months following Sally’s death), they reconcile themselves to themselves.

Structurally, it’s set mostly in the present, with multiple flashbacks to whatever formative experiences are germane to whichever character we’re looking at any given time – it’s a third person narrative that mostly sticks with Mikey (the one who never left their hometown, the one with the stalled life, emotional barricades and metaphorically-convenient degenerative eye condition) but dips in and out of the lives of all the others’ stories, bar Sally’s. Sally, though, is the fulcrum: it’s Sally who knew all the secrets and it’s Sally’s suicide that prompts the others to meditate on their own difficulties and make efforts to resolve these. The bulk of the text comprises conversations, as they all jibe and quiz one another, school-reunion style, and spill their respective beans; what’s left is snapshots of a kind-of-but-not-very messed-up set of childhoods.

The actual stories are good ones: Mikey’s progressive blindness and his relationship with his dad; Alice’s relationships with Sally, her ex-husband, her girlfriend and Mikey; Jimmy’s inability to communicate with his parents; Sam’s unrequited love for Sally and subsequent turn to religion; Lynn’s tumultuous musical career and alcoholism; Sally’s grim childhood, which is only hinted at in the text. But the execution of these stories isn’t ideal: these dramas, by and large, are revealed in pretty flat conversational exchanges, the scenes of which are rather mundane (people eating, drinking, smoking as they chat), while the dramatized scenes from their childhoods are relatively banal: a near-death experience that’s robbed of all tension because the flashback context gives away the ending; a ghostly scene that fails to terrify; a description of a solar eclipse that underwhelms (try Annie Dillard for the full hallucinatory experience). The children’s dialogue feels staged, and the adults’ dialogue is overly expositionary: when Sam reminds the others of Pete, a ‘neighbourhood bully’, for instance, Lynn’s contribution – that he was ‘tough and scary’ with ‘a ponytail’ – feels unnatural and unnecessary. Their exchanges lack the fluidity and shorthand that would suggest the back-and-forth between old friends; the need to convey plot points in order to build character through anecdotes comes at the expense of building those same characters through the dialogue itself or present-day action. Only Alice’s voice stands out, but her confrontational sassiness tips over too frequently into unconvincing buffoonery. Reading these characters, it’s hard to credit them as thirty-one or -two; they’ve got the demeanours of much older people, reminiscing over their wasted youths, rather than those of the young adults they actually are. Moreover, the use of Sally, and her death, as the pivot for their various self-realisations, replicates the old crime-fiction chestnut: the beautiful dead girl who sets the others (mostly male) of on a journey of self-discovery. Sally’s assumed depression is discussed, sure, and fearfully, but ultimately her death becomes an object lesson for her friends – don’t keep secrets, find a way to push on through – while Sally herself remains a cipher.

It’s not very fair to end a review with a ‘if I were to do this’ rumination, but indulge me: Mikey’s going blind is enormously compelling, as is both his family situation and Sally’s (no spoilers!), and I would have loved a slower, more detailed examination of all this that played out chronologically, rather than an assemble-piece that relies on flashback and uses death as the dramatic instigator. Kauffman has the ideas and the ambition, but I would like to see a more ruthless exploration of friendship than the one I found here.

Any Cop?: It’s okay, but if you want a more absorbing look at similar issues, I’d go for Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings or – if you’re brave enough – Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life.

 

Valerie O’Riordan

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