I avoided writing anything about David J. Schow’s very intense book Gun Work when I read it a few years back, because I was so spun out by it and not sure what I wanted to say.
I’m still not.
I wrote a review of it for Good Reads a while ago, but it never quite got at the heart of how deeply messed-up a book this is. So now I’m giving it another go.
In thinking of Gun Work – written by Schow, a horror writer, and published by Hard Case Crime, a publisher of both noir and hard-boiled crime fiction — I’m reminded of my friend M. Christian. I’m reminded of him not because Chris’s writing has any resemblance to Schow’s, but because he’s the one who described to me, back in about 1993, the works of Andrew Vachss. This was back in the days when his short story collection Born Bad had just come out and was causing quite a stir.
Never having read Vachss, I asked Chris what genre Vachss’s short stories fell into. M. Christian described Vachss as “beyond noir.”
That may have been true in one context. But Vachss has a rather simplistic political-social agenda, which deeply erodes any real assignation to the noir label to him. Some of his stand-alone works fall more concretely into that category, but they’re more appropriately described as “merely” hard-boiled. To my mind noir requires a desperate amorality that is directly counter to Vachss’s social activism. That’s not to say that Vachss, as a child-advocate attorney,could not be an activist and write noir, but I don’t believe he can do it at the same time. Hard-boiled fiction is one thing; noir is something entirely different.
Now, Schow’s Gun Work, on the other hand…what the fuck?
If anything’s “beyond noir,” this is beyond noir, beyond hard-boiled. It’s hardcore in the extreme, like the Parker novels of Donald E. Westlake/Richard Stark. Those were beyond hard-boiled, or maybe just ultra-hard-boiled, grotesquely and pleasingly amoral for 1965. Schow’s Gun Work, on the other hand, makes Stark’s Parker stories seem quaint. It makes Parker seem like a nice guy. It’s as if Richard Stark went bad.
Gun Work starts out well-written enough, but deeply average in theme. It’s a pretty straightforward men’s adventure told in a sort of hard-boiled military-flavored style. Then it takes a turn for the dark, violent and thrilling — great pulp action stuff, w00t. Then the book just goes bad, horrific and gross, deep into horror territory without ever leaving the crime genre. We’re treated to page after page of the most disgusting, gruesome torture, which actually isn’t that gratuitous because it’s central to the development of the book.
For the latter segments we take a tour through a hardcore military-commando procedural like what I always wish the Mack Bolan series would be, but never is. Then it’s followed by vastly more extreme violence than the human mind can comprehend, described in loving detail.
Spoiler: It ends badly for pretty much everyone involved. Gun Work is not a book to be read if you want a happy ending.
Overall, Gun Work is a brutal, nasty and deeply effective book. It’s one of the best-written novels I’ve ever read. Some of the writing is so impossibly vivid that it just can’t be believed. When very bad people take very bad creative writing courses, taught by messed-up, mean little sadists, they should get a copy of this book with a post-it on the cover that says, “Here. Now fuck off.” Gun Work is a textbook in how to write action if you are a serious motherfucking son-of-a-bitch, and a cruel mean fucker of an asshole, to boot. It is about the most hard-boiled thing I have ever read. I think it burned off my fingerprints just turning the pages.
But it is such a bitch to read, it’s like being brutalized for 250 pages, and I’m fairly glad I don’t live inside David Schow’s brain.
Only read Gun Work if you want to be kicked while you’re down, with a dose of style so supreme you’ll wonder why you never realized how much you like getting kicked.
Buy Gun Work. Read it. –Love, The Devil. (P.S. I don’t exist.)
P.P.S. Interestingly, the only person who gave Gun Work one star on Amazon.com is some kind of neo-Nazi. His name is “BullDog” and he says “this is the first book I ever threw in the trash.” Here is a screencap of BullDog’s profile:
That book on the left (the one without the Swastika) is The International Jew: Today’s Foremost Problem, a “a four volume set of booklets or pamphlets originally published and distributed in the early 1920s by Henry Ford in his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent…a compilation consisting of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as the main and most important source.”
I probably shouldn’t call BullDog a “neo-Nazi,” however — I’m sure he thinks he’s a “Libertarian.”
From BullDog’s review of the Anti-Commie-Conspiracy-theory-The-Sky-Is-Falling weirdness The Venona Secrets, Exposing Soviet Espionage and America’s Traitors:
Finally the truth is revealed about the Communist infestations in the FDR, Trueman, and Eisenhower administrations. A great book jammed packed with the facts.
Yesteryear’s events are more than history. Communists are still running the show in this country.
I would have given it 5 stars if it weren’t for the authors’ soft-peddling of Eleanor Roosevelt and Albert Einstein.
BullDog also apparently loves Joe McCarthy:
I can’t think of any American who has been more thoroughly trashed and lied about than Senator Joe McCarthy. Instead of being hailed as the great American hero that he was, the one who shone the spotlight on the Communist infestations in our government and our military at all levels, including the top brass, has been vilified by our own government officials in Congress as well as the White House. The news media with all its powers have also completely turned truth on its head. Does Edward R Murrow ring a bell?
So…of course BullDog thinks “Communists are still running the show in this country.” So would Joe, if he were alive to start making up numbers.
Isn’t the internet interesting?