Juska, the author of several other novels, including “The Blessings” (2014), neatly lays the groundwork for a character who would be liable to miss flagrant warning signs. When Maggie’s husband of 17 years left her for another woman, he accused Maggie of having been blind to his misery. Her teenage daughter, Anna, has a history of anxiety and disordered eating, and in the book’s sections told from Anna’s point of view, we learn that Maggie is only dimly aware of her daughter’s continued struggles. Yet as the story moves through its many layers, Maggie’s initial response to Nathan becomes problematic in a different way. As she tells her students, “Remember, fact and truth are two different things.” Nathan’s essay is disturbing — especially in hindsight — but where do you draw the line? Nearly all personal writing betrays an element of sadness, shyness or emptiness. And when living behind screens becomes the norm, aren’t even the most successful and well adjusted among us a little bit awkward and isolated?
In keeping with a novel about a writing instructor, Juska’s prose is clean and straightforward. She strikes a cozy tone that is the literary opposite of toxic masculinity. In the opening pages, we learn that Maggie lives in a home with “high beamed ceilings, the soft pile of logs by the wood stove, the sun-bleached pillows piled in the window seat.” We are also introduced to the loose-shingled red barn that “looks romantic from a distance,” and serves as the repository for Maggie’s students’ old essays. The pace can drag, and no novel needs so many descriptions of the color and cast of the sky. But in our age of political rancor and tweet storms befitting our state of emergency, there is something radical about a take on the gun problem that concerns itself more with raising questions than ire.
Darkness suffuses “How to Be Safe,” Tom McAllister’s heady and unsettling exploration of America’s gun violence epidemic. A mass shooting hits the Rust Belt town of Seldom Falls, Pa., once a leading producer of elevator parts and now a pocket of the nation where opportunity has dried up and “guns were gifts you got for 13-year-old boys.” The book’s primary narrator is Anna Crawford, who was recently suspended from her job as a teacher at the school for her negative attitude and unstable behavior. When news of the shooting breaks, she is briefly considered a suspect, and neighbors and friends are all too willing to buy into the idea of Anna as villain. “Reports cited anonymous sources talking about everything I’d ever done wrong — shoplifting, taking too many smoke breaks at work, knocking over a neighbor’s mailbox after an argument. An ex shared nude photos of me, because, he said, anyone who could kill kids had lost her right to privacy.” Anna is quickly cleared of the crime, but people still avoid her. Even her online therapist blocks her.
While those surrounding Anna go through the motions of healing, she does not grant herself forgiveness. She is steadfast in her sadness, perhaps the one thing she has claim to. Staggering about town, often half-drunk by midafternoon, she serves as a docent to tragedy and all that follows: the media swarms, the rallies, the memorials, the political infighting, the blip of a presidential visit, the hashtags. In a sadly Delphic feat, McAllister imagines a Friday morning student reflection program called “Never Again.”
Yet this is far more than a ripped-from-the-headlines story. McAllister, the author of the melancholic novel “The Young Widower’s Handbook” (2017), delivers here a portrait of a nation vibrating with failure and humiliation. Anna’s history with abusive men long predates the shooting, which partly explains her willingness to serve as sponge for a fresh cycle of misogynistic vitriol. She contends with jeers and emailed threats, only to empathize with her abusers. One of the book’s greatest successes is its exploration of the overlapping forces and impulses behind our nation’s sexual-harassment and firearms crises. Anna visits a confession booth that has popped up on her town’s main street. “I said I was lazy and unfocused and I understood why I was unlovable, but I still wished it weren’t so. Then I said sometimes at night I think maybe I’m actually the one who did the shooting.”
McAllister is a writer of poetic inclinations, and his prose occasionally trips over itself with Werner Herzog-esque beats meant to impart resonance to a story that doesn’t need it. In a section where Anna’s ex-boyfriend Robbie makes her bacon and eggs, we learn: “Eggs are chickens that haven’t been born yet. You eat them and then inside you they are born and your body is filled with birds.” On the whole, though, the writing sears — and reminds us of literature’s power to fill a void that no amount of inhaling the vapors of Twitter will satisfy. “What I envisioned was this: No memorial at all. No stone. No American flags every three feet. No ribbons. No priests and no Bible. No symbolic floral arrangements to represent vitality or youth or rebirth. No poet reading a poem about rising from the ashes. No obelisks, for God’s sake. Just dig a huge hole and fill it with guns.”