Thursday Reviews: Gun Church by Reed Farrel Coleman

Gun Church

Reed Farrel Coleman

Once upon a time, you had a series of writers who were the hot ticket in New York City, the very essence of the kind of people Tom Wolfe wrote about in Bonfire of the Vanities. They became enamored with their own talent and pissed it away in a blizzard of cocaine and an orgy of willing female playmates. Truman Capote comes to mind. So does Norman Mailer. Crime writer Reed Farrel Coleman steps out of his comfort zone to create just such a writer, 80’s wunderkind Kip Weiler.

When we meet Weiler, it’s been years since he’s written anything worthwhile. He is languishing in an eastern coal mining town, Brixton, teaching community college to writing students who are barely literate. Brixton itself makes the rough section of London look like Times Square during New Year’s Eve. The town and the college are a dead end. And that suits Weiler just fine.

Until a student pulls out a gun. Remember how he researched handling a Colt Python, the gun now held on him, Weiler manages to stop the kid from shooting, talking to him until he can grab the cylinder, which stops the revolver dead. Speaking of dead, in a sheer bit of luck, Weiler disarms the kid in time to watch him die in a hail of SWAT team bullets. Suddenly, he’s a hero. And he is recruited by two students: Renee and Jim, to join a special group. It’s called the Chapel, where members go to shoot each other (in protective gear no less). Weiler suddenly feels more alive than ever, even when he was “The Kipster,” the enfant terrible of literary circles. Soon he is writing again. Renee has crawled into his bed and becomes his muse. But just a little disturbing is Jim, who has an intense fanboy obsession with Kip. Jim loves everything Kip has ever written and can’t wait to read the new book.

But to Kip, it’s a chance to bury The Kipster once and for all and get on with the business of living.

The bones of this story is your typical noir, though Coleman, the master of the twist, never lets the story stray into formula. In the beginning, this story has a natural parallel to Fight Club, another tale of modern male ennui going violently wrong. But whereas Palahniuk’s Jack is ultimately fighting a split personality, Kip Weiler is trying to escape an old persona only to wonder if he’s fallen into a new trap. Eventually, theĀ Fight Club parallel disappears.

This story is very organic, and several details resonated with me. Weiler spends most of the book, even when things start turning around for him, wondering where he went wrong and if it ever will be right again. And there is the fear all writers have, the fear that their talent will abandon them. Freed from the constraints of a series, Coleman has written what is probably his best novel yet.