Between the dates of March 16th and April 15th, when I read and wrote this review for Hashtag Good Guy with a Gun, FORTY-FIVE mass shootings took place in the U.S. resulting in multiple fatalities each, as well as hundreds and hundreds of additional acts of gun violence happening in the streets and homes across the country every day.
Jeff Chon frames his debut novel around an evening at a pizza restaurant days before the election of a best-left-unnamed 45th President of the United States. Scott Bonneville happened to be in the right place at the right time to prevent the death of a Pizza Galley employee at the hands of her angry boyfriend who had accused her of cheating. Scott, gun in hand, shoots and kills the boyfriend. He is made a hero in the media, and a movement using the hashtag #GoodGuyWithAGun is born.
Unbeknownst to the media and the public at large is the fact that Scott Bonneville was there that night, indeed, to be a hero, but not in the way it happened. He was there based on his belief in the conspiracy theory that a nationwide child sex-trafficking ring operated in secret out of Pizza Galley restaurants. He’d been indoctrinated through message board communities not unlike 4chan and similar websites, and his plans of holding the Pizza Galley employees hostage until he could expose the conspiracy were ruined by another guy with a gun. You, like most of us lately, are probably becoming fatigued by hearing news of right-wing conspiracy nuts, and this synopsis reminds you too closely of current events. But worry not: Chon takes this concept and quickly guides the reader through bizarre twists and turns that takes the story to places you wouldn’t imagine, leaving you asking “what the fuck?” in the best way.
The novel is formatted into three parts, each separated into vignettes presented nonsequentially. The story is told in a third-person narrative POV, and focuses on moments from the lives of several different characters. We have Scott, the English teacher turned #GoodGuyWithAGun; Blake, one of his students whose mother Scott ends up in an affair with; Jae, a retiree who has run away from his family and home to escape Jeoseung Saja (Korean folklore’s emissary of death) after separating from his “Earthly Occupant,” or soul; and Brian, Scott’s half-brother who grew up in Hawaii with their father, Cary Bonneville: cult leader. If that sounds like there’s a lot going on, it’s because there is. But Chon weaves it together seamlessly throughout, and the last third of the book ties up loose ends in unexpected, fulfilling ways.
The Catcher in the Rye and A Confederacy of Dunces are used as important plot devices, each being referenced several times and to great effect. Both novels are widely regarded as classic works of satire, and I believe Jeff Chon’s Hashtag Good Guy With a Gun achieves a similar end. Hashtag takes a look at characters who have made objectively bad decisions. Evil decisions. And while learning of their tragic backstories may provoke sympathy in the reader, we’re still meant to view them as products of a broken society. One that tells men, subliminally and explicitly, to toughen up, show no emotion or weakness, and to solve problems with violence. When someone (generally white and male, though this novel interestingly turns that on its head) who has every right to be labeled a terrorist goes on shooting sprees and murderous rampages, the media is quick to report what in his past may have led to this tragedy, or how he was just having a rough day, or whatever other bullshit excuses the talking heads come up with on any given evening. Yes, these men can be looked at as natural products of American society, but this should not be used to absolve any #GoodGuyWithAGun of murder or his ideology.
There’s one character I didn’t mention earlier who stands in stark comparison to these #GoodGuys. He’s someone who has been through some real shit. Multiple traumas. But he’s one of the actual good guys. He’s warm, gentle, and does what he can to help those in his community. I won’t name him here, but he’s my favorite character, and he’s only in the story briefly, so I want you to meet him on your own. In fact, my one gripe with the novel is that there are certain storylines and characters I wish we could have explored further, but Chon honestly fits a lot into a little here, and I understand not everything can be written about in great detail.
Hashtag Good Guy With a Gun is a biting satire of toxic masculinity in today’s America, as well as a scathing critique of American attitudes regarding gun violence, racism, homelessness, social media virtue signaling, and everything else. And it does it damn well.
Evan St. Jones does non-profit work by day and book stuff by night. Their short stories and novella are unpublished as of yet, but they have a few pieces of flash fiction around if you know where to look. They’re a co-creator of LGBTQIA+ organization, QUEERPORT and co-owner of Vessel Vintage in Shreveport, Louisiana, where they live with their partner and three-legged dog.