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Rebecca Kauffman. The Gunners.
Counterpoint Press, 2018, pp. 224.

Mikey is going blind, but he is our window into the small realism of Rebecca Kauffman’s second novel, The Gunners (Counterpoint Press, 2018). Though Mikey is apprehensive about where his macular degeneration will leave him, he is perhaps better equipped than anyone to get by in a world gone dark. As a thirty-something, he still lives where he grew up. His routine hasn’t changed in years. To practice navigating his home and cooking in the black, he places tape across his thick eyeglasses. He’s also the sort of person who has always relied on emotional insight. Blurred out from the world, Mikey still manages to see a great deal, especially when it comes to his five closest friends.

Kauffman’s novel takes its name from the club that was formed in childhood by Mikey and these friends. All six neighborhood kids used to meet in an abandoned house identified only by the family name peeling from the mailbox: the Gunners. The novel toggles between this past and a present that sees the five surviving friends gather to mourn their recently deceased member, Sally. Sally has committed suicide, and, as we learn, this is only the second and more final departure she made from the Gunners. Many years earlier, hemmed in by the cruelties of ensuing adulthood, Sally simply left. Theories about why she left the group—the first time and the second—abound as the remaining friends talk late into the night. Everyone contributes to dredge up the past, and with the discrepancies of memory float up secrets and yet more questions. Some remaining Gunners have reason to feel more guilt than others. Sally has abandoned them twice, but by the end of the day that sees her buried, she looks to have been all but driven away.

Like Kauffman’s first novel, Another Place You’ve Never Been (Soft Skull Press, 2016)—which is actually a collection of only loosely connected stories—The Gunners depends for its mood and its smallness on the bleached landscape of Western New York. I might as well admit that this is my home (or used to be), and it was for this setting that I initially sought out Kauffman’s writing. I grew up not far from her characters, and there is a quality to the low light of long winters that remains with me. We have summers up there by Lake Erie, sure; they are short and spectacular. But winter is the defining season, and winter is what I found as these protagonists—Alice, Lynn, Sam, Jimmy, and Mikey—assemble to speak of their estranged departed. Because of heavy snow, the Gunners don’t all make it on time to the memorial service, nor to the lakeside house where they will stay the night, and Jimmy—the owner of the house—makes a special point to describe to the others the sloping downward curve of the driveway. This weather-delayed plot and attention to ice-slicked gradient is the absolute zero degree (or at least sub-freezing degree?) of small realism in Western New York. For better or worse, this is a short novel that spends description on unflattering “puffy” ski coats and devotes dialogue to characters assuring one another that, yes, I can drive in this weather—even without snow tires installed on my Honda Civic.

In the drab-but-not-dire coldness of Buffalo suburbs withered in economic decline, Kauffman’s plainness of voice and smallness of concern make for an undeniably simple story. The plot is one single night-bound conversation peppered in with vignettes from the past, and then a final section that stretches into the months after Sally’s death. The Gunners have mostly moved on to diverging lives: some rich, some tragic, none satisfied. This divergence produces some awkwardness as they look out at the blustery night. There are revelations, and there are serious, sad, and even heartening issues therein. But the book is fundamentally about friendship and about the unspectacular truth that a friend is the person you have known and continue to know. Friendship has a density here that amasses. Solidified slowly, relationships expand outwards with textures of love, pain, and understanding. Revealed secrets don’t sever ties so much as put down a new, perhaps rougher, layer of sediment. Forgiveness doesn’t heal so much as it buffers and smooths—never finished, mind you, and always waiting to be roughed up again. Depression, addiction, dependence, acceptance, desire: these are the elements for an earthy accretion of long-suffering care.

Low visibility plagues windy lake winters, and it is for this reason that Mikey’s failing sight seems less threatening than foregone. He can see as well as anyone in this mess. In the failure of sight we rely on other senses. And because it can be as difficult to hear as to see during a blizzard, we cling to touch. Perhaps this is why moments of contact—skin on skin—recur in The Gunners. Mikey is led by the hand; Sam regrets what his hands have done; Lynn’s touch is violently curtailed; Alice and Sally both reach out in the night—to each other and to others. Friendship is tactile. We lose sight of one another and we stop listening, but we can’t help being moved by others.

The Gunners is comprised of plain and well-timed words, and the prose recedes appropriately behind its own quietness. We are left with a cumulative weightiness—lake effect snow. This isn’t to say that there are no beautiful, singular moments, because there are. But considered a word, sentence, or even page at a time, the novel seems thin, and some readers will surely fixate on this attenuated appearance. Layered word upon word upon word, however, the book succeeds. Granularity begets gravity. The words mass and move as the Gunners move one another in turn. And with this steady attention to the massy banality of simply being together, the novel moved me, as well.

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