THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 465, April 27, 2008
"This Ain't the Summer of Love"
Attribute to The Libertarian Enterprise
Bring a Gun to School Day
There is something about a good teen angst novel that really resonates with me, even as a 42-year-old. You'd think a quarter of a century since leaving high school would have given me some detachment, and it has for the most part. But every once in awhile, the old feelings of frustration, anger and cynicism come rushing back as vividly as if I were 16 all over again. Re-reading Catcher in the Rye, for example, makes me feel like a teenager, and not in a good way.
Darian Worden's powerful first novel, Bring a Gun to School Day, had a similarly disturbing effect. Erik Shylding, like Holden Caulfield before him, is the perfect embodiment of the alienated male teen of his day. Of course, in Holden Caulfield's day, a fascination with guns would have characterized him as a healthy, normal young man. Times have changed.
Erik Shylding likes guns a lot, which in itself would be enough to get him branded a weirdo by his teachers and peers. He also likes hardcore music and black clothing, has the wrong friends, and goes through his school days simmering with anger. In other words, he "resembles" a typical school shooter, such as the one who just committed the worst school shooting ever at the novel's opening.
The faculty and students at Suburban Regional High School have pegged Erik as a ticking time bomb. In their infinite collectivist wisdom, they deal with this perceived threat through a combination of condescension, ostracism and police state tactics that could only make matters worse and would have seemed absurdly over-the-top a generation ago. Today they seem entirely believable, if no less outrageous.
A lesser writer might have made Erik just a misunderstood misfit who's really a sweetheart once you get to know him. To Worden's credit, Erik is a flawedif ultimately sympatheticprotagonist. He really isn't very likable, even once you get to know him. Erik knows he doesn't fit in, and if it were up to him, he wouldn't be in school at all.
Owing to compulsory attendance laws, however, Erik and his enemies are stuck with each other. All he wants is to be left alone, but he is surrounded by those who refuse to do so. The final straw for Erik is the placement of Orwellian "school safety" (i.e., anti-self-defense) posters throughout the halls. He responds with a poster of his own, announcing "Bring a Gun to School Day" on April 19th (a date that resonates with freedom-minded people). That provocation quickly escalates the tension between Erik and the school faculty and federal goons who have taken over campus security. Not to give away too much, but those readers who pick up a novella with "Gun" in the title hoping for thrills and action won't be disappointed.
Nevertheless, Bring a Gun to School Day isn't really about guns, nor is it really about school. It's about the self-destructive compulsion of modern society to forsake freedom for the illusion of security, to retard the capacity for critical thought in our youth, and to stamp out any trace of real individuality wherever it is found. As a condemnation of the modern police state and nanny state, it succeeds brilliantly.
Equally as important, it succeeds as a drama and a character study. All too often in political novels, the characters are one-dimensional vessels for the author's polemics. Erik Shylding, by contrast, is a fully developed young man, whom the reader gets too know uncomfortably well. I wouldn't go so far as too say there is a little Erik in all of us (some might say thank goodness for that), but there is in me, and there is in a lot of former and current high school outcasts. To paraphrase Bill Clinton of all people, I feel Erik's pain. From the first page, the sense of isolation and anger is palpable, and it builds like a pressure cooker until Erik's inevitable confrontation with authority.
If the book has any shortcoming, it is that the supporting characters are not as fully drawn. We barely get to know Erik's best friends David and Henry, and his apparent love interest Liz even less so. The bureaucrats and law enforcement officers who are the villains of the story were so scantily portrayed that I occasionally had trouble keeping their characters' names straight. The one really fascinating character, aside from Erik, is his grizzled neighbor Harry, a gun-toting old-timer who doesn't suffer fools gladly. I would have loved to have spent more time getting to know him.
Bring a Gun to School Day is a novella, so the author didn't have the luxury of leisurely digressions into the lives of secondary characters. It is first and foremost Erik's story, told mostly from his point of view, and that alone is reading time well spent. This is an important debut work by a talented storyteller and social commentator. I enthusiastically recommend it to teen misfits of all ages.