Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Rules and Regulations: The Shotgun Rule by Charlie Huston

Charlie Huston's The Shotgun Rule is one of the most earnestly unsettling novels I've read in some time. Now, that may not be the case for everyone who reads it. I have a feeling it has something to do with the fact that I read all of Charlie Huston's other books before this one. I know the kind of horribly nasty surprises he keeps in store for his protagonists. So, upon starting the book and discovering that the protagonists were four teenage kids, I was biting my nails even through the fairly benign opening sections.

The four kids in question are the violent Paul, suffering from some ambiguous problems at home and always looking for a fight; Hector, the hispanic hardcore punk-rocker who makes fearsome use of a bicycle chain; George, the de facto leader of the group, and his younger brother Andy, a nerdy Dungeons-and-Dragons-playing outcast whose outer intelligence masks violent inner thoughts.

The story starts off with a simple moment of carelessness, as Andy allows his bike to be stolen by Timo Arroyo, youngest of the fearsome Arroyo brothers who made a profession out of terrorizing their fellow high school students. When the four friends break into the Arroyos' house to get Andy's bike back, they discover their other profession: manufacturing and selling crystal meth. All it takes is a couple furtive glances between Andy and Paul, and the gang suddenly has an extra kilo of amphetamines to their name. But the Arroyos are not happy, and neither is their shadowy boss, only known as Geezer, a man who always has to find exactly the right word for the situation...

Much has been made of this novel's narration, as this is Charlie Huston's first (and, to date, only) novel written in the third- rather than the first-person. And he does a really impressive job with it, using the third-person to its fullest potential and really getting inside the heads of all of his characters. The narrative passages from Andy's point of view are particularly engrossing, with his all-consuming knowledge of mathematical and scientific trivia often being interrupted by his fascination for violence - which disturbs him just as much as it does the reader. The narrative approach also allows Huston to get some other voices into the book, most notably George and Andy's father, Bob Whelan. Bob is fiercely protective of his kids and tries to teach them the value of an honest day's work (which is largely lost on them, as they spend their spare time hocking pills and burglarizing houses). Bob, like many of the others, is harboring a nasty secret, one that might explain his sons' propensity towards violence. “It sure sounds like a real story [...] Because he’s thought about doing stuff like that, but it sounds like his dad really has done stuff like that. So maybe it’s not so bad to have those things in your head. Or, at least, maybe there’s a reason for them getting in there.”

This adolescent preoccupation with violence becomes basically the central theme of the entire novel. All four of the kids, even nerdy Andy, love getting into fights, and much space is devoted to analysis of how and why these kids keep doing it: "Paul gets in more fights than anyone, but that’s because he’s always mouthing off and starting them," whereas Hector prefers to "Just stand there and stare at the sidewalk while some redneck calls you spic and wetback and makes fun of your Mohawk and the safety pins in your earlobe, and when he turns to his friends to laugh at you, you [...] start punching him in the side of the head.”Much is made also of the way these kids seem to inherit their violent tendencies from their parents. In addition to Andy and George's father's ambiguous former life of violence, Paul's alcoholic dad seems to have some very creepy, possibly violent tendencies to him as well, which are (perhaps mercifully) never fully explained.

Overall though, despite all the grimness I've just described, this book is still a total blast. Huston's trademark humor may be at its darkest here, but it's still wickedly funny, whether it's the four kids arguing over who wins the title of 'gayest band ever' (if you're curious, they pretty much unanimously vote for Depeche Mode) or Geezer bragging about how wealthy his criminal empire is on the basis of having both HBO and Showtime. The simple two-act structure of the story works wonderfully as well, with the first half containing all the setup and the second half, which uses the time-honored suspense technique of confining all your characters to one location, containing all the payoff. This may not be your average coming-of-age tale (although no lesser authority than Stephen King has called it "Stand By Me on Dexedrine"), but it's certainly the most memorable I've read in a long time.

(Cover image obtained via http://pulpnoir.com)

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