Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Hemingway in the henhouse

Scent is tied to memory: just ask Proust (my neighbor who lives across the street), who triggered a flood of childhood images by eating a whatever-it-is with stuff on it. He dunked it into his cup of tea like a doughnut (note: NOT a “donut”), and thus released memories of eating that same whatcha-ma-callit when he was just a tot.

I am sure this goes back to some primitive structure in the brain, something we evolved on top of (i.e., layers and layers of evolutionary upholstery over that reptilian core). But we still have it. I have it. You have it. Matt Paust has it.

It? What is it, you say? Keep reading.

Matt is someone I e-mail with every day, sometimes many times a day. We “met” in that strange non-meeting way people do through the internet, in this case through a blog I wrote on Open Salon called The Glass Character.

I used to think I had about six readers, and maybe I did, although if I got six comments they all seemed to be from Matt. This was somehow encouraging, because I didn’t expect any at all.  My current blog keeps telling me I’ve had 22,000 views or something like that, which seems highly improbable, but there it is. Quite possibly, all of them are Matt too.

We have almost nothing in common except a lifelong devotion to the word (meaning the written word, not the gospel). He goes by many aliases, which makes me wonder sometimes, it really does. Norm Hawthorne, Chicken Maaaaaa(aaaa)n, Clark Kent, and many others: every time I visit his blog(s), it has all changed. He’s an award-winning former newspaperman, though in his bio at the back of his new book of stories he calls himself “a former award-winning newspaperman”, implying that somehow or other those awards no longer apply. But I think they do.

Right now he lives in Virginia with his family and his chickens, and a more tender shepherd of chickens you never saw. He grew up in Wisconsin, middle America, which is maybe why I was thrown off by his accent on his YouTube videos, which to my ears sounds more urban than rural.  But some people lose their accent along the way, or take on a new one. Sort of like a blog identity, you know? Like a snowman being rolled (or a snowball rolling down a hill), we build up layers, yet the old ones remain inside, pure and untouched.

When he told me his new book was about (or at least was related to) the ownership of guns, I think I involuntarily yipped. I am a Canadian, and though Michael Moore’s stereotypes of us can be ludicrous (happy little beavers who don’t lock their doors), they’re right on the money about some things. Most people I know would approach a gun like a poisonous snake, or at least a museum piece under glass, untouchable by all except Mounties, hunters in red plaid jackets, and aboriginals.

It’s just different here. We don’t have “the right to bear arms” (which a friend of mine insists is actually “the right to bare arms”, meaning Americans can wear t shirts all year), nor do we “pledge allegiance”, to a flag or to anything else. Pledging allegiance feels foreign, strange, though I do remember standing up and singing God Save the Queen every morning in grade school, which is in itself pretty bizarre.

That’s not to say we aren’t patriotic or faithful to the True North Strong and Free (“with glowing hearts we see thee rise”!).  It’s just different. We stand on guard. And stand on guard. And stand. . . It’s repeated so many times in our national anthem that it must mean something. No rocket’s red glare, no bombs bursting in air, just. . . we stand on guard. For thee.

This issue of Canadians and Americans exists: it’s like sleeping next to an elephant and praying it never rolls over. Some believe we’re treated like a poor cousin, but I have another theory: it all comes down to population base. We have approximately 1/10 the population of the U. S, spread out over an even larger geographical space, with a fraction of borders or divisions, provinces instead of states (and somehow those two terms have a markedly different flavour).

Some still perceive us as one more state that will soon surrender its identity and join the Union. I remember some time ago, maybe decades, when someone – surely it must have been an American tourist – made the comment, “oh well, Canadians and Americans are pretty much the same, aren't they?" That’s like saying Italy’s the same as Switzerland. All on the same continent, aren’t they?

This arouses in me not so much the spirit of the beaver as the porcupine. It gets my back up. We evolved differently, we’re historically different (one great writer, hell if I remember his name – maybe Robertson Davies – said, “A Canadian is an American who rejected the Revolution”: so in a sense, we seceded before there even was a Union).  The stereotypical Canadian is self-effacing and mild and doesn’t want to touch a gun or make any sort of trouble. 

According to humorist Will Ferguson (and the country produces more than its share of funny people: Mike Myers, Jim Carrey, Howie Mandel, and some really good dead ones like John Candy and Leslie Nielsen), a Canadian not only apologizes when someone bumps into him, he apologizes when he bumps into a chair. But guns, oh my. There are those guys in red plaid jackets, yes, and of course some Indians (as some people still call them) going after moose meat to make pemmican, and the RCMP, who have taken to using tasers in the last few years (sometimes with fatal results). But the rest of us? It’s like saying we have the right to bear light sabres or something.

So I have Matt’s new book in my hands, a handsome volume with a provocative cover: a young girl who looks like a Catholic schoolgirl, except that she’s packing heat. A Little Red Riding Hood who can definitely take care of herself. Thus the title of the book, If the Woodsman is Late: Tales of Growing Up in a Society that Respected Personal Ownership of Firearms.

Firearms! Whew, whoooo: let me blow the smoke off that one! But let us also take a deeper look.

Matt’s book is a mix of short fiction and memoir (and by the way, folks, I am NOT writing a formal review of this book because reviews take me bloody forever, literally weeks, and besides I charge for them).  Sometimes this works, other times it’s disconcerting. But disconcerting isn’t always a bad thing.

The more firearm-related stories can pack a wallop (i. e. there’s a piece of fiction where a man and his girl friend are ambushed by two murderous low-lifes, and in self-defense he fires: “The eyes opened very wide and very quickly as the copper-jacketed slug raced toward them at 860 feet per second about four feet away. It hit one of the eyes, creating a hydraulic effect that released a misty cloud of blood, brain fluid and bits of eye as my second bullet caught the robber just under his chin.”)

Is this neo-Spillane, or something out of a Scorsese movie like Raging Bull where the black-and-white blood explodes from Robert DeNiro’s face in slow-mo? I don’t see how one can remain detached from such a description: “the eyes”, indeed. Not his eyes. Objectifying the prey. The Canadian in me quails, but then I must ask myself: if I was standing next to a loved one and we were both about to die and I had a gun, what would I do?

I’ve thought about this already, for reasons that aren’t clear. Say, if I was babysitting my grandchildren and some menacing lowlife broke in, and he had a gun, and the kids were screaming, and he was stupid enough to drop it or I kicked it out of his hand. . . Yes, I know what I’d do if I absolutely had to, but only if I could get the goddamn thing to fire.

But here I was going to talk about smells. It’s strange, but some of the stuff he writes about, which seems about as far away from my own experience as it can be, triggers (pardon the expression) something deep in me. He talks almost lovingly about guns, it’s true, even names them sometimes (or someone else does). He confesses that his first boyhood gun inspired not so much love as lust. But then there’s the first time he experiences “the smell of a gun that had just been fired. A wild, acrid exotic smell, the likes of which I’d never tasted previously yet somehow knew to be authentic.”

For me, on some level, this was a Proustian/madeleine-dunked-in-chamomile-tea moment, because I do remember something like that smell. We didn’t have real guns around – oh wait, didn’t my older brother Walt have what we called a bb gun? Pellet gun. A Daisy? Air rifle, maybe. Not sure. I was very small, and a girl, who therefore wasn't supposed to understand. My brothers had fake Western guns that didn’t shoot anything, but that’s really not what I remember. I remember caps, rolls of paper that had bits of explosive in them that could be “let off” by being struck with a rock or hammer or something (never a gun). And there was that hot, sulphury, fire-and-brimstone smell.

They used to “let off” worse things. Back then, in about 1959, a boy of ten like my brother could walk into a corner store (in Canada!) and buy something called “four-inchers”: firecrackers that could do a lot of damage, particularly to anthills. Kids weren’t exactly frontiersmen then, but they could tinker with the symbols, Roy Rogers pistols in holsters, or they could “play war” with plastic hand grenades and tie me to the central pole of  the canvas tent we pitched in the summer, a “prisoner”.

There are lots of stories here that pertain, and some that don’t, to the topic of firearms, that uneasy subject which makes Canadians squirm. Reminiscences of an old-school newspaperman, of experiences in the army, even sports: and one very strange piece of fiction about a man who gets as disoriented and lost as Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond and has a kind of inexplicable religious experience. The football one I can’t relate to, as it’s a language I just don’t speak and probably never will. But then, I don’t speak gun either, yet some of these pieces (too short, many of them, I wanted more) got to me, shook me up.  (Note to author, you should’ve left out the one about trying not to pee, it’s a little over the top. Pee shows up in three or four of these. Once, I think, is enough.)

But I digress. I have a favourite:  Death in the Tall Grass, and it’s about Matt’s first experience as a hunter and the family’s insistence that they eat his kill for dinner. Unfortunately it’s a tough, stringy old rabbit imperfectly picked clean of lead shot, so that the boy bites down excruciatingly on a pellet: “The jolt shot across and up with a shriek from the right side of my face deep into the cerebral cortex, leaving me frightened and undone.” A clang that goes through the bones and into the floor. Does the gun shoot back?

I’m sure Hemingway never ventured into a henhouse, unless it was to pick off a few for lunch. Or maybe he liked his eggs fresh.  When I’m proofreading my work for glitches and it gets pretty close to finished, I always hear myself saying: OK, if I were Hemingway I could make this a lot better, but I’m not Hemingway, I’m Margaret Gunning, so this is the way it’s going to be. Maybe Matt does the same sort of thing. 

It’s strange to see this guy puttering around happily in his yard, a protective man to be sure, writing about guns. Some of the fiction, particularly a story where a blameless black man is shot by a fake white cop, is gory but does not strike me as “pro-gun”.  The subtitle of his collection strongly implies that society no longer respects personal ownership of firearms. The truth is, some societies are downright afraid of them.

As the saying goes, guns don’t kill people; people kill people. But the homicide rate is lower here: by how much, I’d have to look up. If guns are around, if they are to hand and you can easily grab them, aren’t they more likely to be fired? Statistics seem to bear this out. If someone burst through the door and I shot him in the head and it turned out to be a neighbour whose house was on fire, well then. . . See, I could’ve thrown a stapler at him and it might have had the same effect.

It’s just a different way of thinking, of living. We’re leery of guns, sometimes very negative about them; Americans seem more comfortable with them, and it is written into their Constitution that they have the right to own them: no, not to own them but to “bear arms”, a very different thing. We can’t, but I don’t remember ever seeing a campaign to change that. 

And yet, and yet: implicit in that all-important “stand on guard” is having the means to protect that precious border from violent intrusion.

And let’s face it: you can’t do that with a stapler.


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