Shenandoah Valley writer Rebecca Kauffman’s second novel, The Gunners, transports the reader to contemporary suburban Buffalo, New York, an Upstate of the Mind peopled by down-on-their-luck young adults. But if it seems like a cautiously strategic placement for an evocation of Trump-era whites whose working-class interests don’t overlap with Confederate sympathy, this notion soon dissolves in Kauffman’s Great Lakes snowscapes, appropriately barren country for a reunion of childhood friends on the occasion of a suicide within their ranks.
A long-separated sextet reduced to five, the Gunners, so named for an abandoned house they adopted as a neighborhood hangout, reconvene for a funeral in Lackawanna a decade after their high school graduation. The narrative centers on Mikey, a solitary townie suffering from early-onset macular degeneration, and Alice, a bisexual divorcee whose domineering personality dictated the friends’ coalescence. Rounding out the roster are Lynn, a disfigured addict in recovery; Sam, whose sudden embrace of religion confounds his mates; Jimmy, a charismatic, successful businessman hampered by deeply buried secrets; and the late Sally, whose mysterious estrangement from the group propels the novel’s exposition.
Kauffman strikes immediate, crowd-pleasing gold with a flashback-laden plot that’s equal parts Stand By Me and The Big Chill. Her characters—male and female, straight and LGBTQ alike—are rendered with compassion and delicacy enlivened by the group setting. In coming-of-age scenes conjuring the romance and sadness of latchkey childhood, her spare, objective language never assumes a clinical tone.
With its ensemble cast and weighty, sentimental subject matter, The Gunners is a feat in economy. Character backgrounds are executed in a matter of sentences rather than chapters; narrative intrigue is succinct and enduring. With no small degree of difficulty, the drama itself is unspooled largely via dialogue. Circled around a warm fireplace in a lakeside cabin, the Gunners adopt the quick repartee of assembled comrades, but their discursive conversation reveals personal intricacies, boundaries, and antipathies dulled by the group dynamic.
The book’s consideration of mortality is underscored by redolent naturalist passages. After a harrowing phone call, Mikey opens his front door and stirs a flock of grackles in a nearby tree, leaving “a holy, yearning silence, like a prayer that was too sad and too deeply felt to be spoken aloud.”
Later Alice, who collects earthworms for live bait, describes her hobby to Mikey: “You need a fair bit of soil so they don’t kill themselves gettin’ all wrapped up in each other. They’d do that, you know, all that meat and muscle. Clamping together till they squeeze the life right out of each other.” The death of a beloved pet and a slaughterhouse scene which somehow works brilliantly lend a universality to Kauffman’s characters who text, check Facebook, and answer Craigslist ads.
Through their words Alice comes across as grating, Mikey seems frequently pathetic, and Sam is often sanctimonious, yet Kauffman wields a firm grasp on her characters, ensuring the reader loves them as she does without passing any direct judgment. The contrast between Mikey, resigned to his fate and scared of his own shadow, and Alice, who grabs life by the horns (among other things), fills quiet scenes with compelling tension. The third-person limited voice emphasizes misunderstandings compounded over years of separation, and the resolution strikes a heartrending note on the seasons of life without undermining any of the novel’s heavier themes.
True, the Gunners aren’t a particularly happy lot: They tend to forgive rather than forget, they smart in disappointment when faced with each other’s compromises, and each feels complicit in Sally’s inscrutable suicide. But their friendship outweighs happiness or lack thereof, making their every interaction poignant and memorable. Kauffman’s precision in tackling the nature of love and fatality constitutes a major accomplishment for a young writer, and The Gunners packs a serious emotional punch in its pragmatic brevity.
Kauffman reads April 28 at 1 p.m. at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. Free.