Written by Reed Farrel Coleman — Kenneth ‘Kip’ Weiler is an English professor at Brixton County Community College, in a mining community in rural New Jersey. His professional life consists of teaching creative writing to a bunch of students with little natural talent who are using their degree to stave off a little longer the inevitable fate of working in the mines, or a local factory. Around here, everybody knows the only way out of the county is by joining the army or going to prison. His life outside of work is spent sleeping with the occasional student and regretting how he squandered his own talent. Back in the 1980s, you see, The Kipster was the toast of the New York publishing world. His debut novel, Beatnik Souffle, was a smash hit, skewering the greed and money-obsessed decade. It should have been the start of a stellar career. Instead coke, money, fame, women, and Kip’s inherent selfishness sent his marriage, his career and ultimately his talent into a steep downward spiral.
Kip is just about at rock bottom, resigned to the fact that he’ll never write again, when he accidentally prevents a Columbine-like massacre at the college. Suddenly he’s a hero to his pupils and one night after work he is taken to Gun Church. It seems that some of the locals, not just students but some of the workers too, are only too aware of the grimness of life in Brixton County. They meet in secret at a disused military base, and with varying degrees of protection, shoot at each other. The thrill they get from cheating death makes them feel more alive and Kip is invited to join. He is trained by Jim Trimble, his most talented student, and the one most in awe of Kip’s reputation. The early morning runs and practices with Jim, and his nascent affair with another student, the beautiful Renee Svoboda, make Kip feel alive more alive than he’s been in decades. Before long Kip is writing again, using his experiences at Gun Church to fuel a fictional account of a real life Irish killer he met during the Troubles. It’s one of several writing attempts he shelved as his live went down the drain.
Our hero may have ditched the cocaine and the one night stands, but his addictive nature remains and he begins taking bigger and bigger risks at Church. Sensing things are getting out of control, he wants to leave Brixton and return to New York to complete his book and perhaps go back to his ex-wife. But the other members of Church took a risk inviting him into their world and aren’t happy about him leaving.
Gun Church has remarkable depth. It’s not just a riveting thriller, though it is that, but also a meditation on regret, the price of obsession, the difference between infatuation and love, the creative process, and a lament for a lost generation. Kip is one of the most fully-realised characters I have read for a long time. His despair, joy and narcissism are totally convincing, and his weaknesses are laid bare with complete honesty. Despite all the tragedy, the ending offers hope and a kind of salvation for Kip, and feels totally appropriate.
Before reading this, I thought Reed Farrel Coleman’s 2005 novel The James Deans, the third of the Moe Prager Mysteries, would remain a career high for the author. Boy, was I wrong. I was stunned and humbled by this incredible book.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars