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Hashtag Good Guy with a Gun

By Alex Diggins.

 

Jeff Chon, Hashtag Good Guy with a Gun (Sagging Meniscus, 2021)

The horns gave it away. On the 6 January, 2021, as rioters stormed the US Capitol building, killing five people, and forcing America’s lawmakers to bunker down, guns drawn, in the House of Representatives chamber beneath a full-size portrait of Marquis de Lafayette, hero of the American Revolutionary War, one man caught the world’s attention. Bearded and bare-chested, his face woaded in red, white and blue, he carried a stars and stripes flag mounted on a bayonet. On his head was perched what looked like a viking helmet in a tussle with a raccoon.

Who was this avenging angel of the Trumpian Id? He was, it transpired, Jake Angeli, a 33-year-old part-time actor and full-time attention-seeker, from Phoenix, Arizona. Angel’s social media proclaimed him a ‘QAnon Shaman’. Yet amid the breathless deconstructions of the symbolism of his attire, and what his coming meant for the great experiment of American democracy, one fact was glaring by its omission: the man was clearly a moron. A full-fat, copper-bottomed prat. I mean, just look at those horns.

Angeli doesn’t make an appearance in Jeff Chon’s excellent debut novel, Hashtag Good Guy with a Gun. But he is a creature of its world. Chon’s characters — mostly young men, mostly broken in small, telling ways — inhabit a crepuscular universe of marathon porn-watching sessions and gym-buffed inadequacy, where dark conspiracies circulate on bilgey internet forums. Wacky theories about J. D. Salinger, MK-Ultra and big finance are passed under the table; guns are dealt like playing cards. It is the most successful novel I’ve yet read of the Incel generation. And most impressively, Chon makes you care about these damaged, dangerous lost boys.

Scott Bonneville is an all-American hero. On 4 November, 2016, four days before Donald Trump was elected 45th President of the United States, Bonneville walked into the Pizza Galley restaurant in Portland, Oregon, and shot another man, David Brightman, in the chest. The reason Bonneville wasn’t arrested immediately and charged with murder was because Brightman himself had come armed to the Pizza Gallery that day — and with the intention to kill. His wife had been carrying on with a colleague. This was supposed to be his day of big, bloody revenge. Until Bonneville stopped him: “#GOODGUYWITHAGUN”.

Yet, as Chon reveals in his opening pages, Bonneville had his own dingy mission:

The truth was, Scott had gone to Pizza Galley after months of investigating the disappearance of children across the country. They always seemed to come in threes, and every time he pinpointed the places they’d disappeared and then drew a line connecting the sites — every single time — they always formed a triangle which surrounded a Pizza Galley location: a triangle, the shape of a pizza, these people were taunting him.

Like Bonneville, Chon returns again and again to the shooting at the Pizza Galley. The novel turns the incident over incessantly, examining it from all angles, trying to find its hidden latch. In this way, the characters surrounding the shooting — Song Jae-dong, the half-crazed homeless man in the parking lot; Yu-jin, the waitress and young mother whose life Bonneville probably saves — are illuminated. But it also means we come to inhabit the conspiracist’s mind. Chon unspools theory after theory, until we are batting at air, chasing our tails. We’re red-pilled, hard.

As this cat’s cradle unravels, we learn about Bonneville’s outlandish hinterland. He was raised in a Christian commune in Hawaii; his father was a millenarian preacher who believed the millennium would mark the beginning of the apocalypse. When the four horsemen were late for the party in 2000, he simply switched to preaching a religious war between Christianity and Islam: 9/11 gave credibility to this incredulous idea. More significantly though, Bonneville’s parents were too busy spreading the Word to notice they left their son in the care of serial abuser, another member of the church. And, it transpires, Bonneville’s father was spreading his wild oats as well as the good news — Bonneville has a rag-tag of half brothers and sisters everywhere the community travelled. Esoteric patterns, paedophilia and lies: suddenly we can parse Bonneville’s belief in the Pizza Galley conspiracy.

Chon invests his other characters with weight and sympathy, too. Bonneville grows up to be a high-school English teacher and starts a relationship with the mother of one of his pupils, Blake Mesman. Mesman, likewise, is born into inadequacy: his father Jan, a yacht-club kid from a wealthy family, picked up his mother Lisa, a waitress, whilst on a date: “It was supposed to be fun and games for him. How quickly he’d asked if she was on birth control before tossing the unwrapped condom aside.” Yet after the couple’s inevitable divorce, Mesman finds himself unfavourably compared to his father’s new child, a golden boy called, naturally, Donald. “He’d learned to read at the age of four, while Blake still read at preschool level in the second grade. He was a starting pitcher on his Little League team while Blake had quit Tee-ball in first grade … Jan’s bitch of a wife really took every little opportunity to run Lisa’s face in it.” This incendiary cocktail of resentment and rejection needs a spark, though. And that’s provided when Mesman stumbles upon his mother and Bonneville in flagrante in a school cupboard. Mesman then turns to the violent, misogynistic Company of Men, a brotherhood of aspiring alpha males, for consolation and explanation. You sense Jordan Peterson’s Twelve Rules for Life is on their reading lists.

Any novel about the alt-right won’t last long until it’s sucked into the orbit of Trump. (Or ‘r/The_Donald’ as the forums have it.) In this sense Good Guy with a Gun’s movements are trackable. It takes place largely in the baffled aftermath of his election. And Chon has a wry chuckle evoking the punch-drunk atmosphere of those first weeks. “The America we’d fooled into existence vanished right before our eyes,” he writes. “No one thought he stood a chance. She was supposed to win by a landslide — our first female president. All the Thumbs-Up, Heart and Angry Face reactions we’d accumulated were for naught.”

After its first few chapters, though, Good Guy with a Gun jags and ducks winningly. Trump recedes beyond the horizon, a dark star with bad juju — but one not worth passing comment on. He’s there. We get it. Bears and woods. Instead, Chon is more interested in how the myth of the Donald is just the latest iteration of America’s preference for stories over reality, its inability to wake up, shake itself and get its shit together. Bonneville’s Pizza Galley fantasies, his father’s wack-job rantings, Mesman’s craving for acceptance: they are all of a piece. America, Chon argues, that country built — like countries everywhere — on violence, displacement and loss, consoles itself with narratives of its unique, God-given swagger, a shining city on a hill. But Chon also shows these myths need renewing, and so America’s alt-right darns them with new strands: “Scott knew about all the children, and the man knew Scott knew. How did the man know? He knew because his eyes were open, that’s why.”

There’s a further element here. Bonneville, like Chon, is Korean-American. And through him, Chon reveals the strange half-life of the immigrant experience: partly from here, partly from there; and, in the eyes of the Americans around him, never truly one of them. “Other than the jokes and slurs he’d endured, he had no context of what it meant to be Asian. If he’d had the capacity to be honest with himself, he might have admitted he saw being Asian as a bad thing.” In college, Bonneville challenges the other Asians on campus: “It’s like we obsess over the past the whole time. Even in here, all we do is talk about the past. What about the future? Do we ever think about where we want to go?” Chon is too canny to spell it out explicitly, but the implication is there: perhaps if Bonneville had a deeper sense of history, then maybe he wouldn’t be so taken with such shallow explanations of the present.

Despite tilting at some hefty themes, Good Guy with a Gun is a darkly satirical read. The action pelts along with rackety, picaresque drive; and some of the minor characters, such as Burghardt, a shock jock lawyer who offers to defend Bonneville, are delightfully grotesque. In fact, with its artfully-turned knob gags and symbolism-struck protagonists, the novel reminded me at times of Thomas Pynchon in his more playful moods. It has the same postmodern nihilism — a sense that nothing matters because everything matters. Not all of its elements work. The ending, which rushes towards combustible catharsis, feels a little scrappy. And a psychosis subplot which toys with supernatural elements isn’t quite snugly assimilated.

But, then again, perhaps that’s to be expected. After all, America over the last five years has resembled a man in a barrel hurtling over Niagara Falls: boy, has it been a rush, but at times it has looked terminal. What Chon has achieved, therefore, in Hashtag Good Guy with a Gun is fairly remarkable. It gives us no pat solutions to America’s Gun problem or its Angry Young Men problem or its Angry Young Men with Guns problem, but it tackles these topics with fluency, wit and a dancing, stinging charm. It’s a deeply humane book about our inhumane times; and that, at the moment, feels quite enough.

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alex Diggins is a writer and editor based in London. His writing has appeared in, among others, The Economist, The TLS, The Los Angeles Review of Books, 3:AM Magazine and The Spectator. He is also published in Rife: Twenty-One Stories from Britain’s Youth (Unbound). Reach him on Twitter: @AHABDiggins.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, April 20th, 2021.