The Politics of Character
Reviewed by Joseph Clifford
I had a writing professor who told a great story about how to write a villain. Back when he was enrolled in theater class, the day’s assignment had been to portray the bad guy. My professor set about doing the standard dastardly pantomimes—shooting snake eyes, twirling mustache, unhinged laughter—until the teacher stopped him mid-cackle. “No, no, no!” he said, “You don’t get it. The villain doesn’t know he’s a villain!”
James Warner’s All Her Father’s Guns is the story of Cal Lyte, a rabid pro-life, gun-toting Libertarian who embraces exclusion over inclusion, ignorance over education, and isn’t shy about espousing his brain-dead philosophies. Cal is the kind of guy you dread getting stuck talking to at holiday parties or other social functions where you have to play nice and can’t punch someone in the head. No, he’s not the book’s villain (that distinction might fall to his ex-wife), but he’s not your typical hero either, and he’s kind of a dick. So why the hell should you follow Cal’s journey for three hundred pages? Because James Warner can fucking write, that’s why.
Good writers don’t take potshots, and they don’t take the easy road. Cal Lyte, the character, is ripe for caricature, and a lesser writer would line up and take aim. Who could blame him? This material targets the highbrow (i.e., the educated and liberal), and it would be easy enough to play cartoonish conservative platitudes for a laugh. It’s hard to resist ridiculing an arms’ supplier who says, “None of us is responsible for another person’s actions… I might as well worry over who was killed by all the weapons systems I helped bring to market over the years.” Well, um, yeah. But it would also be a copout. When adequately weighed, the complexity of character—both in fiction and in real life—seldom translates to black and white, cut and dry, good and evil. Except in the cases of serial killers, and, y’know, Ann Coulter.
Rather than mocking Cal’s political views, Warner goes the rougher route, steering clear of commentary on actual politics (which is no easy task in a novel that revolves around a congressional race), and instead delves into the heart of the man, rendering a poignant, serious study that never forsakes humor. That husband and (ex) wife are running for the same seat merely supplies subtext to exploring fractured familial relations. And we are talking about one fucked-up family: Cal, a venture capitalist at a moral crossroads; his ex, Tabytha, a Republican candidate whose lunacy makes Cal seem downright reasonable by comparison; their emotionally stunted adult daughter, Lyllyan; and her refined boyfriend, Reid, all of whom are floundering in their own way. Yet, all are also deeply sympathetic characters (except for maybe Tabytha, whose nutty banter bears an uncanny resemblance to Michele Bachmann. Although since this novel takes place in ’02, that may be a little projection on my part.)
All Her Father’s Guns is propelled by Warner’s cultivated and dry acerbic wit—no surprise; he’s English, after all—as well as his deft storytelling. With prose reminiscent of Amis (the more talented one), Warner takes us inside the deconstructed Lyte household, offering an intimate portrait of a broken family, while spinning an entertaining mystery.
Everyone in Guns has a secret. Whether that’s Reid and his brother, Bruno, trying to unlock their dead father’s final riddle, or Cal’s new girlfriend, Viroela Kescu, a chain-smoking Lacanian therapist (and record-setting abortionist) afraid to love completely, or the shady stuttering man who appears out of the shadows whenever we get too confused about the intricate plot threads and need a few hints to untangle the web.
Traversing Northern California, the American Southwest and remote outposts of Nevada, the action follows swindling preachers and doomsday prophets, with subplots involving international arms deals, polygamy, and fratricide. And yet for all its density, All Her Father’s Guns feels very much like the singular story of one man. And for as big a jackass as Cal Lyte can be at times, we never feel he is beyond redemption. If someone can just get through to him in time he might be one of the ones worth saving.
The book opens with Cal’s grotesque, crass observations in a quaint Berkeley café. A lone hawk in a sea of doves, Cal flaps his wings and squawks with disdain for the soft, liberal agenda of the notoriously progressive region (trust me, I live here), though this bravado does little to mask his own gentler core. Our first clue into the sort of man Cal really is doesn’t come when he asks his daughter’s boyfriend to recommend a therapist (immediately after insulting him), nor does it come when he prods Reid to dig up information on Tabytha (with whom he is still in contentious divorce negotiations). It’s in a split-second response as he strolls around the grounds of a fellow venture capitalist in Palo Alto. When he should be talking business and celebrating grandeur, Cal is easily distracted by a young boy in the swimming pool.
“We were walking around the shallow end of the pool,” Cal tells us, “when I saw something out of the corner of my eye. Before I knew what I was doing, I threw my Blackberry … and jumped into the water.”
It’s a false alarm, an overreaction. The boy Cal ends up pulling to the surface had merely been trying to hold his breath, which earns several laughs from the guests. But it provides insight into Cal’s make-up, and goes a long way toward explaining why he is the why he is. Like many of his ilk, Cal’s bombast and vitriol is primarily a defense mechanism, his infatuation with firearms a coping strategy. Cal has lost the thing he cared for most in this world, and now if he can just arm himself heavily enough, nothing can ever hurt him again. Of course this is the exact sort of left-wing, touchy-feely analysis that Cal would openly deride. And Warner, astutely, never forces such an epiphany on Cal. But it doesn’t make it any less true.
Reid is the stand-in for Warner, the calm voice of British reason amidst the polarizing shrill of American lunacy. Each chapter is told from either Cal’s or Reid’s POV, and you can see how early drafts may’ve unfolded. I’m guessing Warner started out with the intention of giving Reid equal billing, planning to have him narrate, if not the bulk of the story, then at least his fair share at 50/50. But that isn’t the case. Not even close. Cal easily handles seventy-five percent of the storytelling duties, and as the novel wears on, that disparity becomes even more pronounced. And the reason for this is simple: his is the far more interesting character.
There’s nothing wrong with Reid, an aspiring professor pitted against catty colleagues “who [can] quote Jacques Derrida from memory, and [who may] be sleeping with [the] department head.” (Having suffered through enough grad school lectures on that pompous ass Derrida, I promise you, in academia, that line is as cutting as it gets.) Reid is a funny, articulate, well-meaning guy. But there is nothing at risk. We know that regardless of any painful childhood memories, Reid is going to be all right; there is no fear of his being dragged out to sea like Cal, whose moral ground erodes with every passing storm.
It’s so much easier to dismiss the Dick Cheneys of the world as simply evil, sitting in their subterranean labyrinths kicking cats and plotting ways to fuck poor people. But when you stop and consider that everyone views himself as the hero in his own story, you lose the comforts of absolutes, and your world becomes a little less certain, becomes a little…grayer. James Warner’s All Her Father’s Guns isn’t going to make you suddenly start liking Ayn Rand. I doubt that was his intention. Which is a good thing. Ayn Rand is an insufferably dull and shitty writer. But by bringing you along on Cal’s rollicking ride toward redemption, Warner might just get to you to appreciate the other. And as we slouch toward another November, knee deep in the mud of a particularly sloppy political season, that isn’t a bad thing.
Joseph Clifford is editor of The Flash Fiction Offensive and producer of Lip Service West, a reading series in Oakland. His story collection Choice Cuts is out now (Snubnose Press). His novels Wake the Undertaker and Junkie Love are also slated for publication later this year. Joe’s writing can be found at www.joeclifford.com.