Tuesday, July 30, 2013

What is the sound of one gun shooting?: David J. Schow's Gun Work

David J. Schow's 2008 novel Gun Work is a perfect "new" hard-boiled novel in significant ways.  It captures the hard edge of post-war pulp without seeming campy or nostalgic on the one hand or veering into smirky self-consciousness or jokey, over-the-top violence on the other. (Happily, or sadly, events obliged Schow. Gun Work is set in Mexico, the country's explosion in kidnapping last decade permitting a plausible recycling of that old hard-boiled stand-by, the dangerous trip south of the border.)

Schow's handling of violence is especially nice.  On the one hand, one bit of violence perpetrated on the protagonist is horrific, much more so than what Schow's predecessors in previous decades would have depicted. On the other, the act happens off stage and is revealed to the reader (and the protagonist) in such a way as to banish any possibility that Schow is peddling torture porn.

As a longtime copy editor of metropolitan newspaper stories, whose reporters somehow always know that gun fire "rang out" even though they did not hear the shots, I was especially tickled by Schow's dissertation on the sounds a gun really makes:

“Contrary to entrenched cliché and what nitwits repeatedly say on the evening news, shots do not `ring out,’ and anybody who tells you they do has never heard gunfire. Report is more akin to the startlement of a heavy door slammed by a gust of wind; you know how that makes you jump, and no matter how prepared you think you are, the sound always comes as a surprise. It stops time for a millisecond and obliterates all other sound. Ignition and launch of a bullet evacuates the air from around your head in a phenomenon called blowback. If you’re not ready for it, the noise jump-starts the human fight-or-flight reflex in some small primitive corner of the brain. You freeze momentarily until the gunshot allows the rest of the world to come back. Once you’ve gotten past that first shot, subsequent shots are easy — you can even make them without blinking because your mind has processed that initial speed-stop, which no way, nohow, never in history, `rings out.’”
Finally, a quirk of Gun Work that should have driven me nuts but did not: Schow's more than occasional odd, if not downright incorrect word usages, cognate as a verb, for instance, or iterations, which Schow iterates more than once, or ultimata, which is a correct plural of ultimatum, but ultimata? Give me a respite!

But Gun Work is so good that I half-think the half-baked erudition (ingresses for entrances is another example) is a nod to the occasional flashes of learning Jim Thompson gives his characters, especially Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me. So let me iterate that Gun Work is smart, fun, and probably one of the best books on Hard Case Crime's list.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Blogger seana graham said...

I liked the quote from Schow a lot. I am surprised, though, that you give him such a pass on usage.

July 30, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I was surprised, too. But the book is so good that I just want to give him the out that he may have been rendering tribute to Thompson (not that I approve of the usage, especially cognate.) Because the novel is not just good, but smart, I wondered also if Schow may have dug out old, rare examples of those strange usages. Or maybe they were just typos.

I have not met the author, but I'll try to remember to take the matter up with him if we do meet.

I sent the Schow passage as a group message at my newspaper. Two of the replies invoked other cliches by which reports describe gun sounds: gun fire "erupts," one said and sounds like a car backfiring, said another. A third suggested something that had not occurred to me: that Gun Work might be a play on gun play.

July 30, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

From the rest of what you say, I imagine that his word choice is deliberate rather than inadvertent.

July 30, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Who knows? I could well be giving him too much credit. I haven't read any of his other writing, so I have no way to guess whether such usage could be part of his general approach.

But look at it this way: Assume the usages are mistakes. If I can overlook them, you know I must think highly of the book.

July 30, 2013  

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