“All Her Father’s Guns”, by James Warner. Reviewed for Full of Crow by Paul Corman-Roberts.
HIJINX FOR A SAD AND DECLINING EMPIRE
2011, Numina Press, 190 pp.
Ostensibly a madcap political caper with two narrators, James Warner’s debut novel “All Her Father’s Guns” is in fact the story of two men who are desperately seeking to redefine the meaning of their lives in a world that is becoming more and more dominated by the females in their lives.
The two characters at first glance could not be more different: Reid Seyton, a British expat academic about to lose his job in a bottom feeding academic program (“The Department of Theory”) at the University of California, and his father-in-law Cal Lyte, a Libertarian venture capitalist who has more skeletons in his closet than a Halloween supply store.
It’s not really much of a spoiler on my part to reveal that all of Cal’s narration is in fact channeled by Reid, who over the course of the novel has found himself slowly becoming his father-in-law. Warner sells the transformation of Reid into his father-in-law so seamlessly the reader can easily buy into the authenticity of “Reid’s narrative.
“I feel Cal’s presence closer at hand. He’s wherever crazy American’s go
when they die. So even though I had to write the even-numbered chapters of
this book for him, I don’t feel that I’ve taken too many liberties. Cal sees
through my eyes sometimes, and his voice takes up residence in me. Exor-
cism’s dangerous, because of the extreme act of identification required…did
I exorcise Cal, in the end, by channeling his story, or has he possessed me?”
– Reid Seyton, in “All Her Father’s Guns” Epilogue
Reid hasn’t fully become his father-in-law, neither as a fanatical born again Christian or as a pro-life advocate. But the answer to Reid’s question somehow lies in the genuine bond of loss that exists between Cal and Reid which to reveal here WOULD be a spoiler. If anything, this revelation towards the end of the story encouraged me to go back and re-read many of the even numbered chapters (the odd numbered chapters are all from Reid’s point of view) to get a better grasp of the character arcs.
This isn’t something a reader would normally do with a book that is, at its heart, a satire of California culture in the early part of the 21 century’s first decade. It might seem a bit niche at first, but Warner has a gift for communicating the dysfunction of the crumbling American empire through the prism that is the nation’s “wild West” ethos.
It is Cal’s motivations which drive so much of the novel’s plot, using his resources from ill gotten venture schemes and a questionable network of gun enthusiasts in the god-forsaken reaches of the Nevada desert who combine fundamentalist religious fervor into their life model to try and destroy his ex-wife Tabytha’s Congressional campaign. But something about his past marriage and family life haunts him, the same way Reid’s loss of his father in childhood haunts him. But even in these somber, serious life moments, Warner finds laugh out loud moments in the spaces:
“My grandfather, fetched from the sanatorium for the reception tried to
cadge cigarettes from everyone. Listening to the vicar drone on, I asked
myself who’s going to finish the story?
“Viorela Kescu told me once that we all live in the shadow of collapsed
meta-narratives and I knew at once what she meant. I’d never know how
the Fox King found the Golden Key…I’d never know my father well enough to
complete his story.” – Reid discussing his father’s funeral.
The story referenced above by Reid, the Fox King’s search for the Golden Key parallels his and Cal’s own search for their truth. And while many a man with a mid-life crisis knows this analogy all too well, the right…or the entitlement men have always reserved for themselves in this quest has become obstructed by the females whom they have come to depend on for emotional and (often) financial support, while frequently taking them for granted, even those more peripheral to the story like Department of Theory rock star Cindy Wong:
Moments later I ran into Cindy Wong who was leaving the airport
Bookstore, wearing a T-shirt promoting the Black Spider Weretiger Dragon
“They sound like people not to mess with,” I said. “Whoever they are.”
“Reid! What are you babbling about as usual?”
“Just reading your T-shirt, sorry.”
“You can read my T-shirt as much as you want, Reid,” Cindy said. She’d
dyed her hair crimson, which always looks sexy on Asian women. “Hey,” she
said, “that color really suits you.”
“Beige. Is that even a compliment?” One of her uncanny abilities was to
go through the motions of flirting with me without permitting me the slightest
illusion that I was remotely in her league. She was wearing leopard print jeans,
and I wondered if there was some evolutionary reason why predator-skin patterns
are sexy. Do men deduce that women so attired can flay large feral cats and will
therefore be good at protecting putative offspring?
Enter Lyllyan, Tabytha and Viorela Kescu, Cal’s Lacanian therapist who also doubles as his lover. Warner draws them all in the same loving caricatures he renders the men of this story in, so they add consistency and believability to plot turns that otherwise might seem outlandish: Viorela becoming pregnant with Cal’s child; Lyllyan being into Bob Marley; Tabytha taking her daughter to get an abortion…and come to think of it, Tabytha functioning through anything given her predilection for self-induced disorientation.
Warner’s portrait excoriates the circus that has become electoral democracy in the United States, and the political models that an unchecked two-party system has given rise to, and much like a twenty first century Joseph Heller, he demonstrates that the only logical response to this state of affairs is an equally unchecked absurdism, since these types of politics tend to be a reflection of the same mind sets that views wars of occupation as sustainable. The nation’s right wing has become more relentless and exploitative than ever. The left-wing has become more hopeless and distracted than ever. And all the while, the pursuit of ringing or silent cash registers creates the background soundtrack for the never ending wars of influence.
The author beautifully captures a slice of one of the modern world’s continually shrinking eras of cultural discord, in this case, the period from the late 20th century tech-boom to the rise of the neo-cons just before the great recession of the 21st Century, a period that also encompasses the arrival and evolution of the post 9/11 world. It may at times seem like a very paranoid and publically anxious time, but the speed at which Warner’s novel unfolds, while touching on the very familiar theme of needing to understand, and thus evolve our families in their wholeness, broke or otherwise, gets the reader to feeling that even these desperate times are in fact, merely passing.