All Her Father's Guns by James Warner (A Review by Thomas Michael Duncan)

Numina Press

$13.95/200 pgs.

The United States of America is heavily divided, possibly more so now than anytime since the end of the civil war. Strict bipartisanism and our elected representatives’ inabilities to cross party lines is one of the major reasons why our nation continually fails to overcome the staggering social and economic issues we face today. It is as if we have all forgotten the basic skills of negotiation and compromise.

Skin deep, James Warner’s debut novel appears to be a study in bipartisanism. Set in 2002, before the US invasion of Iraq, All Her Father’s Guns is split between two first-person narrators: Reid Seyton, a liberal college-professor with a humanities Ph.D., and Cal Lyte, an affluent venture capitalist and Libertarian with a passion for firearms. They are connected by a woman named Lyllyan, Cal’s daughter and Reid’s girlfriend. The gap in the narrators’ ideologies is made explicitly clear when Reid supports Lyllyan in her decision to have an abortion. Cal, on the other hand, uses “pop-up head-and-torso silhouettes of abortionists” for target practice at the firing range. Although these two men seem impossibly different, their wind up cooperating for a common cause—preventing Cal’s ex-wife Tabytha from winning a congressional election. According to Reid, “Tabytha made Cal look positively left-wing.” In the process of ruining Tabytha’s campaign, the two men stumble upon a vast string of startling secrets and life-changing revelations.

A common pitfall of novels that cycle between multiple narrators is that one narration often wins out, meaning it is more interesting, or more original, or better written, etc. To a degree, All Her Father’s Guns suffers from this problem. Although both characters are fresh and intriguing, and both narrations provide wonderful insight and observations, the chapters narrated by Cal win out. He is a very persuasive narrator, to the extent that it almost does not sound completely insane when he says, “… nothing brings more security to a father’s heart than hearing his daughter operate the slide of a shotgun,” or, “There should be mandatory shooting practice in every psychiatric ward.”

Whereas Cal is very direct with his ideas, Reid’s most insightful comments are almost always presented as questions, such as, “Are the words ‘I love you’ never more than a desperate attempt to rationalize the mess you’re in?” and, “Is a leader merely someone so desperate to believe in something that he succeeds in transmitting his delusions to others?” Reid comes off as unsure of himself. He always seems to be speaking hypothetically. As the story progresses, he gains confidence and overcomes some of this timidity, but by that point Cal has already stolen the show.

The most fascinating aspect of Reid’s story is an epic, unfinished bedtime story told to him and his brother by their father. As a travelling businessman, Reid’s father made cassette recordings of the bedtime story in installments for the brothers to listen to each night while he was gone. When he died tragically, the boys were left to wonder what the story meant and how it was supposed to end. These questions plague them even into adulthood. It appears, early in the novel, that this is going to be a crucial aspect of the story, possibly serving as some sort of overarching metaphor, but after Reid and his brother discuss it in the early chapters, the story is hardly mentioned again until the novel is winding down, over one hundred pages later. Instead, Reid’s narrative is all but absorbed by Cal’s. This definitely doesn’t ruin the book, but readers may find themselves speeding through Reid’s chapters in order to get back to Cal’s.

There is a slew of secondary characters that bring this story to life. Lyllyan, for example, continues to host her local radio show even while suffering from depression after her abortion:

“The most I ever heard Lyllyan talk was when I listened to her weekly show on KALX. People called in and requested songs, and Lyllyan would critique their selection and then play the tracks she felt like playing instead, by bands like Black Flag and Bad Brains, the Buzzcocks and Stiff Little Fingers, Big Dumb Face and Angry Samoans.”

Then there’s Viorela, the chain-smoking Lacanian therapist from Romania with a history of performing illegal abortions, and Igloo, one of Cal’s many business partners, with whom he may have accidentally sold “highly classified military technology” to China. Boris Dartwood is a flamboyant professor obsessed with Michel Foucault, and Melchior Servatius is a stuttering photojournalist with a dark past of his own. Perhaps there are even too many secondary characters, as it is not difficult to occasionally confuse them.

At its core, All Her Father’s Guns is a dramatic novel with a complex plot, drenched in social and political commentary, touching on every hot topic from gun laws to abortion, prescription drug abuse to illegal immigration. It’s a fun thrill ride that is quick to develop and sure to satisfy a hungry mind. What’s more, as the story progresses, an electric feeling of hope builds up, sparked by the idea that people with different backgrounds and conflicting philosophies are able to truly understand one another.

Late in the novel, Reid says, “In the course of marriage, people exchange characters to some extent. Perhaps this is even part of what marriage is for.” Perhaps this theory need not apply only to the convention of marriage. If there is a lesson to be learned from All Her Father’s Guns, it is that valuable character exchange can be found in the least likely of places.

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~Thomas Michael Duncan lives, writes, and works in central New York. Visit him at tmdwrites.tumblr.com.~

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