By Chris Via
Jeff Chon focuses on the weaknesses that see violence as an expression of strength: sexism and racism, an obsession with identity that devolves into an ideological search for purity.
Hashtag Good Guy with a Gun by Jeff Chon. Sagging Meniscus Press, 247 pages, $21.99.
“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall,” Anton Chekhov advised storytellers, “then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” Jeff Chon’s debut novel doesn’t wait for the second act: a gun goes off (twice to be exact) in its first few pages. That means the rest of the book could tend toward the anticlimactic, alternating between servings of exposition and denouement. For a fledgling novelist, the danger of overpromising is obvious. The reader is hooked by the initial shots, but will the swirls of gunsmoke be enough to sustain interest, even if there is the promise of another (satisfying) crescendo to come?
Thankfully, Chon is a gifted enough writer to elude reducing gunplay into just another sound-bite, Tweet, meme, or — well, hashtag. He doesn’t fill in torpid backtracking or serve up a lukewarm ending. His strategy, through a series of short vignettes, is to deepen and complicate the story’s pivotal event, which revolves around a troubled man who thwarts a mass shooting at the Pizza Gallery Family Fun Center by shooting the would-be perpetrator. Chon is smart enough not to provide any of the following: a soapbox rant masquerading as a poppy postmodern novel or yet another attempt to capitalize on the 2016 presidential election as the means to castigate Americans. At one point a character says “Sometimes, we have to dig deeper than just what the media feeds us.” It is a truism that Hashtag Good Guy with a Gun takes seriously, to its credit.
Adding relevance to Chon’s determination to go beyond “Breaking News” is that his story deals with racism toward Asians and Asian-Americans (this was written before the recent Stop Asian Hate Movement) and the clash between the sexes, particularly the sinister arrival of a proto-Incel group. American culture has become increasingly fragmented in myriad directions, and Chon wisely chooses to zero in on a couple of viral chunks. This modesty pays off because we end up with balance rather than harangue: the story’s satire does not descend into farce, its provocation doesn’t tip over into the incendiary, and its irreverence doesn’t flip into blasphemy.
Former English teacher Scott Bonneville, the original #GoodGuyWithAGun, is far from the hero the media portrays. He recently lost his job and his woman. He has watched his maniacal and morally checkered father become notorious for his (failed) prophecies. He has learned the truth of his illegitimate birth. Now, living with his single mother in California, Scott wallows in his penchant for the conspiratorial. Freemasons, triangles, and The Catcher in the Rye, among other intrigues, lead him to suspect that an underground pedophilia ring is housed in a supposedly secret room of the Pizza Gallery Family Fun Center (think Chuck E. Cheese with a Peter Pan theme). Propelled by his delusions and failures, he decides to surprise the employees after hours and — at gunpoint — expose the despicable operation. Yet, unbeknownst to Bonneville, fate also leads an aggrieved and armed boyfriend to the same Pizza Gallery to confront his unfaithful girlfriend.
So Bonneville ends up foiling a possible mass shooting. But his “heroism” deserves analysis, not just laurels. And that is where the narrative goes, digging into the man’s identity chapter by chapter. Those looking for self-righteous debates about gun control with straw men will be disappointed. Chon focuses on the weaknesses that see violence as an expression of strength: sexism and racism, an obsession with identity that devolves into an ideological search for purity. The author’s gift for aphoristic statements adds a concise panache to his portrait: “Men see the world as a mirror while women can only see through a window.”
Hashtag Good Guy with a Gun does not turn its “good guy” into some sort of scapegoat. Our own culpability is adroitly underscored: this is a world we create every day through our decisions — or indecisions. As Bonneville tells one of his students, “If you can’t connect with the things that happened, the things that are still happening, then you’re not thinking hard enough.” Chon urges us to think about breaking a cycle of ignorance nurtured by disconnection: our digital culture conditions us to believe that ephemeral connections are enough: past, present, and future are treated as isolated media events. With this lively exposé, Chon, an essayist who has published in the Seneca Review, Portland Review, and North American Review, displays a promising trigger finger for fiction.
Chris Via is a book reviewer based in North Carolina. His work appears in 3:AM Magazine, Rain Taxi Review of Books, Splice, the Arts Fuse, and the Rupture. He recently contributed the afterword to Novel Explosives by Jim Gauer, and in 2018 he won honorable mention for Grove Atlantic’s national book review competition. He is also host of the growing literature-obsessed YouTube channel Leaf by Leaf. Chris holds a B.A. in computer science and an M.A. in literature and writing