Wednesday, 21 November 2012

GUEST BLOG: Nigel Bird

The Thing About Guns
I have a thing about guns in fiction. 
Before I explore my own thinking, I’m going to set out a passage from Smoke where the one-armed, one-legged Carlo Salvino is buying a weapon.  I mention the arm and leg only so that the opening line makes sense:
‘“When they told me you were after arms, I thought they meant weapons.”  Steve’s voice was high, like a girl’s. Made Carlo feel confident he’d get the upper hand.
“Got what I need?”
“You tell me.”  He un-wrapped a bundle of cloth under the table and revealed a pistol.
“Looks like a gun.”
“Nothing wrong with your sight then.”  Steve tapped his heals on the ground, making his knees bob up and down. Created ripples on top of the pints on the table.
“Shame. Lose and eye and you’d be a ringer for Nelson.”
The boy was making jokes. Didn’t seem bothered about the business they were conducting. “What can it do?”
“Hold it in someone’s face and they’ll do anything you want.” 
“That all.”
“Load it, you can kill as many people as you can hit.”
“Two’s plenty.”
“Makes a bang when it pops, know what I mean?”  Carlo looked puzzled. “Expect attention when she blows.”
Kate Turner stood at the jukebox flicking through the tunes and wiggling as if the music was already playing. Carlo wanted to get back to her sharpish.
“It’s a Marakov PM,” the kid said. “Straight blowback. Fixed barrel. Semi-automatic. 8 rounds per mag. Fires as quickly as you can pull the trigger. Old, basic and reliable. Just don’t drop the fucker.”
“How much?”
“Cos it’s not in vogue, a grand. Shells thrown in.”
Carlo reached over and took it in his hand.
It was heavier than he’d expected. Made him think of old-fashioned engineering. Had to be good.
“I’ll take it.”  He took the bag from the back of his chair and removed one of the envelopes he’d stuffed with a hundred tenners. “Keep the change.” 
He wrapped up the gun and box and put them in his bag next to his pissing bottle.
‘It’s Raining Men’ blasted through the speakers. Made Carlo feel good. The whisky and the rhythm blended as if they were pumping through his veins as one.
Kate danced with her back to the men at the table then, after a not-so-delicate spin, face to face with them. All she needed was a pole.
Steve looked her up and down and took his time about it.
“She’s with me,” Carlo told him. Pushed a button on his chair and performed moves that could have got him into the Para-Olympics.’
For once, I actually did some research.  Had to find out a little about guns to try and bring some authenticity to the piece, or at least I thought so.
                To my mind, it works in this scenario. 
                It’s also likely to be the biggest description of a gun I ever use and here’s why?
                For me, guns and cars are viewed very differently in the UK and the US.  There are some obvious reasons for that, of course.
                With guns, in particular, I have a sense (rightly or wrongly) that in the States the gun can be like a companion.  As if it’s in some way and extension of the personality of the individual.
                Because of that it makes sense that in a story the gun is like a character.  It needs a name and some description because it helps us understand the owner or the user.
                It’s a similar thing with cars.  The American car seems to be a mark of an individual more than here in the UK.  It’s a huge country and the range of cars is far bigger (and sexier) in terms of design and specification (at least that’s my perception) and therefore it adds to a story if a car is described.
                When George Pelecanos is telling me about a gun or a car (especially a car) I lap it up.  The detail and the poetry and they way it’s uses always gets me.
                This might be because I have a grass-is-greener thing going on with all those movies and books and American culture filling holes in my being during my formative years.  A couple of my favourite films, Diner and American Graffiti may also be responsible for that.
                Anyway, here’s the thing.
                When a British writer does the car/gun thing, it doesn’t always work for me.  It sort of misfires. 
                I read a big release not so long ago from a great publisher where the author seemed to need to add names and details and specifications every time a gun appeared.  It also mentioned details such as the use of ‘double-clicking’ of the trigger to make sure the killer did the job.
                It felt about as genuine as a politician’s speech.   I couldn’t help feeling it was just the showing off of some research and as with most showing off of research for the sake of proving it has been done, it rarely comes off.
                It’s similar with cars, though I think most writers here are able to leave that one alone.  Most modern cars are, at least the ones I go in or see around, are a bit like modern housing estates – a little plain and all very similar.  There are exceptions, as there always are.  I’d cite Charlie Williams and his use of a Capri.
                I have a very particular kind of mind.  You may have one like this yourself, or might know someone with one.  Names of people escape it like they’re falling through a giant sieve.  I can’t remember a series of instructions beyond the first step, especially if it’s about directions.  I almost always need to look for something in my house before I leave it because I’ve forgotten where I’ve put it – glasses, keys, money, bag, hat, coat, shopping list etc.  I don’t pay much attention to the names of cars or the shapes of them.
                That’s important because to me, mostly, a car’s a car.  A gun’s a gun.  It’s all I need to know.
                As a kid, I played army hundreds of times.  We didn’t have guns – I used sticks and fingers mainly.  We had different kinds of imaginary weapons.  There was the machine gun (it shoots a lot of bullets quickly), a rifle (for the long-range shot when the enemy was visible), a handgun (usually for the captain of for pointing at prisoners) and a grenade (for getting into those bunkers).  There were also bazookas (but only when things had gone pear-shaped and someone was fed up of losing and wanted to cheat – these guys usually left the battle to sulk fairly soon after their bazookas came out).
                That’s how it works when I’m reading, too, especially for non-American fiction.  Tell me it’s a machine gun, a rifle or a handgun.  Let there be a little kick to it.  A weight.  A little care.  Just don’t give me loads of numbers and names that actually mean little to me. 
                A gun is a gun is a gun, unless of course, you think otherwise.

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