I love books about friendship – the nostalgic type that brings back memories to the friends I had when I was young. Don’t get me wrong, I love my new and/or “adult” friends fiercely, but childhood or adolescent friends hold a special place in my heart.
And because I write reviews about representation of blindness in books, my selection for June seemed like a perfect fit.
Was I right?
Following her wonderfully received first novel, Another Place You’ve Never Been, called “mesmerizing,” “powerful,” and “gorgeous,” by critics all over the country, Rebecca Kauffman returns with Mikey Callahan, a thirty-year-old who is suffering from the clouded vision of macular degeneration. He struggles to establish human connections – even his emotional life is a blur.
As the novel begins, he is reconnecting with “The Gunners,” his group of childhood friends, after one of their members has committed suicide. Sally had distanced herself from all of them before ending her life, and she died harboring secrets about the group and its individuals. Mikey especially needs to confront dark secrets about his own past and his father. How much of this darkness accounts for the emotional stupor Mikey is suffering from as he reaches his maturity? And can The Gunners, prompted by Sally’s death, find their way to a new day? The core of this adventure, made by Mikey, Alice, Lynn, Jimmy, and Sam, becomes a search for the core of truth, friendship, and forgiveness.
A quietly startling, beautiful book, The Gunners engages us with vividly unforgettable characters, and advances Rebecca Kauffman’s place as one of the most important young writers of her generation.
Mikey’s Story – Mostly Loneliness
This story opens with an eye test. mikey, aged six or seven, cannot read all the letters on the eye chart. When he is told to cover the other eye to test that vision, he says he can’t, because that’s his “good eye.” When he comes home and talks to his father – who clearly loves him but is emotionally distant – he is told to never ever tell anyone about his failing vision.
And so he doesn’t.
Even as Mikey’s vision worsens – as he holds down a job, inherits a house, adopts a cat, cooks amazing dishes, drives around town – he never tells anyone about his vision loss. He attends doctor’s offices and gets stronger and stronger glasses, and he navigates his home and cooks his meals more and more frequently without vision.
But he does all of this alone.
And he never really makes any friends.
Not after the Gunners fell apart.
The Gunners – Bonds that Break…?
The strongest part of Kauffman’s writing is her depiction of friendship. In flashbacks to their childhoods, we see how the Gunners meet and become friends, how they grow up together, how they keep secrets from everyone around them, and then secrets from each other. When they return for Sally’s funeral – a sign that there is no reconciliation of the group as a whole – they eat and drink (all but Lynn, a recovering alcoholic, and Sam, a born-again Christian) and open their pasts and discover painful realizations… that the person you thought was keeping secrets may have been – but not the ones you thought they were. Does that make a difference?
The Messiness of Disclosure
This book unfolds slowly and beautifully. Without spoiling the plot, most of the characters come to a place where they need to open up about the deepest parts of themselves to truly be free. Whether coming out to parents, or disclosing vision loss, or telling the truth about family histories, there are scary points of vulnerability that changes the course of life.
This reader wishes the author had gone deeper with Mikey’s blindness, past the outward denials – I frequently forgot Mikey was going blind – to moments of self-pity (when Mikey says he’ll quit his job and get a dog and then… whatever) to relying on friends for practical needs (there is literally no mention of blindness services, at all). This quibble aside, this book, more than any I have read, shows the power of disclosure and the risks involved, and how those around you can treat you differently once they learn something they didn’t know before.
This book is well worth your time. It moves along slowly but powerfully, and I loved getting to know the characters – their secrets, their revelations, their futures. Mikey’s story could’ve so easily been written without blindness involved – it didn’t really add to the story, even if it became so integral to the ending – but as written it was handled with general sensitivity. The bonds of the past, reality of the present, and hope for the future are what carry this book above its pitfalls.