Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Book Review: "The Gunners" by Rebecca Kauffman

From a young age, the six of them were inseparable friends—Mikey, Jimmy, Sam, Alice, Sally, and Lynn. They pranked and teased, protected and supported each other, and even helped each other cheat in school. They became The Gunners, after the name on the mailbox of the abandoned house in their neighborhood they took over as their de-facto clubhouse. Even into their teenage years, they knew they'd be friends forever. But of course, that wasn't what happened.

"As children, The Gunners could not have imagined that by the time they were sixteen years old, one of them would turn her back on the others, and the group would be so fractured by the loss, the sudden and unexplained absence of this one, that within weeks the other friendships would also dissolve, leaving each of them in a dark and confounding solitude."

Mikey Callahan never leaves their hometown, although the rest of The Gunners head off in every direction. All of them except Sally, whose sudden, mysterious departure from the group caused its demise. Sally still lives in town as well, but even though she and Mikey see each other, she never speaks to him or even pretends to know him. It further reinforces Mikey's feelings of loneliness and disconnection—he has a tenuous, almost formal relationship with his father, and he is slowly going blind due to macular degeneration. For a 30-year-old, he feels old and alone.

Although Mikey and his old friends keep in sporadic touch, they are all brought together when Sally unexpectedly commits suicide. Jimmy, Sam, Alice, and Lynn return home, each bearing their own wounds from life. As they reunite and reminisce, each is buoyed by rekindling the bonds of friendship, and pained by Sally's absence, and the confusion and hurt they all still feel about her abandoning the group. But many are also burdened by the belief that it was their actions that caused Sally's break from the group and their lives, and perhaps led to her suicide years later.

It's always amazing how vividly childhood memories can live on into adulthood, and how the hurts we sustain in childhood can continue to haunt us as well. Rebecca Kauffman's heartfelt story captures the innocence and the pain of growing up, the beauty and the disillusionment that friendship can bring to our lives, and how the memories and the connections we make are ones to be cherished our entire lives.

The Gunners tells a familiar story in many ways, yet Kauffman throws in her own unique touches. The narration shifts from childhood to adulthood, alighting on different memories of each of the friends. This is a beautifully written, poignant book with fascinating characters, but we don't get to know all of them as well as I wish we had. Mikey, however, is the heart and soul of this book, and his journey, his longing, tugs at your heart and your emotions.

For those who are disturbed by such things, there is a segment toward the end of the book (which runs far too long, although I understood the overall point Kauffman was looking to make) which takes place in a meat processing plant, so there are descriptions of animals being killed and processed. I pretty much skimmed most of it, but it may upset some.

While the plot of The Gunners didn't remind me of the movie Stand By Me in any way, I couldn't stop thinking of my favorite quote from that movie while reading this book: "I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?"

This book is a wonderful tribute to the power of connection, of belonging, and the beauty of friendship. I so enjoyed this.

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