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Sharpshooter is the story of a fatal shooting and its effect on a small Southern town. The man behind the gun is Hydro Raney, a hydrocephalic 20-year-old who lives with his father on a bayou just outside Arrow Catcher, Miss. (Nordan’s previous novels, Music of the Swamp and Wolf Whistle, also take place in this town, whose high-school students practice not only archery but arrow-catching.) On the receiving end of the bullets is a Natural Born Killers-style robber-rapist duo that holds up the general store where Hydro works.
Hydro isn’t just “simple”; like the fecund river near his home, he’s superficially opaque, yet possessed of a startling undercurrent of well-developed thought. At times he behaves like a 5-year-old: He asks repetitive questions, likes his father to sing him to sleep, and, at first, doesn’t seem to understand that the store is being robbed. But Hydro is no Forrest Gump. When the rapist approaches him, he tells her, “Don’t make me, it will ruin my life”—summing up the danger inherent in a loss of innocence. Moments later, in the blasts from Hydro’s pistol, “[c]obwebs in the ceiling corners, the labels on soup cans, a broom that had been lost, misplaced, days before—everything became visible, all of a sudden.” This highly realized instant —played out over several pages in syrupy slow-mo —jars the people of Sharpshooter into repairing their mixed-up lives; thanks to the killings, a marriage is saved and another man finds someone to love. Violence may ruin lives, but in Sharpshooter it heals, too.
Alternately ridiculous and serious-minded, Hydro is an unlikely hero, but Nordan’s other characters are even more comic, and too cartoonish to be called “grotesques.” One such figure is the so-called “Prince of Darkness,” a local undertaker who, when piqued, can recite the entire plot of the Mikado and sing a couple of tunes, too. In a convoluted discussion of Breck shampoo, the Prince of Darkness invokes Goneril and Cordelia, to which a puzzled friend can only reply, “I’m acquainted with a Cordelia, out on Runnymede, takes in washing and ironing.” Initially entertaining, these absurdities grow hard to accept.
Readers familiar with Nordan’s work will recognize some of Sharpshooter‘s people and places: A 30-year-old Hydro pops up in Wolf Whistle, though he dies much younger in Sharpshooter. Nordan’s revisions aren’t particularly intrusive, for in Arrow Catcher—an exotic backwater where porpoises, parrots, and monkeys live alongside humans—normal limits of time and space don’t exactly apply. Readers’ real test lies in how high a tolerance they have for the author’s comic stylings.