You can’t rape a .38. I first saw that on a vintage photo of a protest march, but I’ve since seen it a number of places, including on advertisements for personal weapons. How strange it was, I thought, the way violence unfolds on both mass and individual scale, how the small violence of a single victim and perpetrator can reflect larger patterns and societal values How rape is a tool in an ongoing war against women. I wanted to write a story about a woman enmeshed in violence, who could not, no matter what, disentangle herself from it, because none of us can.~ ~ Rivers Solomon, Contributor Note
If “The Brothers Brujo” was a story about the transmission of male rage from generation to generation, this is a story of the inheritance of female trauma. I’ve re-read the story a few times, and it keeps growing: a love story about a woman and her gun, about power that comes from a gun and from a name and from gender and race and about James Joyce and about how love can sneak up on anyone, even a woman who is prepared from the start to shoot her child. After all, she’s already shot the kid’s father. Maybe about Nietzsche, too: maybe what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, or maybe it fucks you up forever.
Before I get going, again I recommend Jake Weber’s post about the story, not only for the story analysis (and the mention of Lolita – of course! I’m embarrassed I didn’t see that) but for his compassion. I’m usually impressed by Jake’s literary takes, but here I was moved as well.
We’re loaded with resonant details from the first scene:
Every few seconds I venture a glance in Luciana’s direction.. This is the first time I’ve seen my daughter since shortly after she was born, and I am admittedly overwhelmed.
I keep one hand tucked into my handbag, palm secured around the handle of my revolver, ready to shoot if this girl, my child, has re-entered my life in order to harm me in some way, to exact vengeance because I chose to leave her in the care of the state.
It seems an odd precaution, for a mother to bring a gun to the first meeting of the daughter she gave away eighteen years earlier. And, like the title, it generates a great deal of tension, particularly to anyone familiar with the writing aphorism known as Chekhov’s Gun: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” The rule is in fact more general, advising against irrelevant details and requiring that everything in the story contribute to the effect in some way. I see that happening in this story, more than usual; I was thinking about it when I was in that weird place between sleep and waking, and I could see everything leading to everything else in a way that’s quite beautiful. But the gun itself is ubiquitous.
Rather than firing the gun in the second act, we learn the gun was already fired, and find the genesis of Jo’s caution: as a twelve-year-old runaway from what we can only guess, Jo came under the care of a man she refers to as Mr. Wheelock. And, when I say care, I mean abuse, rape, pedophilic exploitation, pick your term. We all survive somehow, and she survives as his functional wife for a few years, until she finds herself pregnant. The scene that follows is astonishing for its brutal honesty, including the three bullets she puts in Mr. Wheelock’s chest using the gun he gave her when he insists he wants to keep the baby, and no one will believe Jo if she speaks up.
The world plays out games of power, who has it, who doesn’t. An invisible puppeteer pulls the strings of each person’s life, determining her fate based on race, gender, religion. Luz got a particularly unfortunate set of strings.
Imagine a large man gifted with athleticism and strength, favored in life because of his class and wealth and color. Now imagine a child, young and poor and thoroughly pathetic. See the two of them together, in a room, butting heads.
Now imagine the scene again, but this time the child has a gun, and the man does not. He steps back, suddenly fearful of her scrawny figure, her shaking frame, her tearing eyes. Everyone fears the bullet, no matter what gift the invisible puppeteer has bestowed upon him.
Something with that much weight in this world is to be saved and savored, so even though I was an anti-gun progressive when Mr. Wheelock handed me my gift, I could not say no to the revolver when I felt its heaviness in my hand.
At the close of last year’s volume, I wondered if it was possible to find stories a little out of the liberal mainstream, like a sympathetic gun enthusiast. And here we have her. Jo is sympathetic as hell, perhaps my favorite character in this volume, and she makes a passionate case for balancing power by means of a gun. She speaks of the gun as a mother would speak of a child, in fact. But I’m left, in the wake of questions about exactly what happened after she killed Mr. Wheelock (we don’t find out if she went to Juvie or was placed in foster care; from what is presented, I’d think there’s a case for manslaughter), thinking she has no business owning guns.
Jo is very well-read; her name is one she chose, naming herself after the character from Little Women. Daughter Luciana has also renamed herself as part of what appears to be gender transitioning, though again the details are a bit fuzzy. Jo recognizes the name, later shortened to Luz, as a minor character in Catch-22, but Luz says her intent was a feminine form of Lucifer. And then there’s Mr. Wheelock, who never gets a first name. Names do a lot of work in this story.
If Luz shows gender fluidity, Jo shows some racial fluidity, at least culturally. Whereas Mr. Wheelock used to urge her to become more familiar with the black pioneers of blues and jazz, she’s more interested in white stars of old-time country and bluegrass, which she says were invented by black folks anyway. By coincidence, I’d just read a short story story by guess who, Jake Weber, about a white man connecting with his adopted black daughter via a fusion of R&B and bluegrass.
Jo has also read DuBois, Poe, Edward Thomas, and James Joyce; the title of the story is from one of the many obscene letters he wrote to his wife-to be:
Mr. Wheelock used to read me the letters of James Joyce… One in particular I said aloud many an evening but never shared with another, holding it close to ne like a twisted secret: “When that person… whose heart I long to stop with the click of a revolver, put his hand or hands under your skirts, did he only tickle you outside or did he put his finger or fingers up into you? … Did you feel it?”
I felt it, yes. I felt everything.
In the end, it’s Jo’s heart that is pierced, but not by a bullet. If that’s too much for her to bear, who can blame her?