Gunners (Kauffman)

The Gunners 
Rebecca Kauffman, 2018
Counterpoint Press
224 pp.

Mikey Callahan, a thirty-year-old suffering from the clouded vision of macular degeneration, struggles to establish human connections. Even his emotional life is a blur.

As the novel begins, Mikey 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. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—rural Northeastern Ohio, USA
Education—B.A., Manhattan School of Music; M.F.A., New York University
Currently—lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia

Rebecca Kauffman is originally from rural northeastern Ohio. She received her B.A. in Classical Violin Performance from the Manhattan School of Music, but as an inherently shy person she decided a career in music was not for her. After graduating, Kauffman stayed in New York City working in public relations. After a few years, she moved to Buffalo, New York, where she worked in a restaurant and taught music. 

In her spare time Kaufmann turned to writing, something she had loved in her childhood—penning  small books with help from her mother, who illustrated and laminated the finished product. As a young adult, she immersed herself again in fiction and realized she had found her calling.

Kauffman sent the first 30 pages of a novel she was working to New York University in the hopes of being accepted into its creative writing program. Although the manuscript was later trashed—"total garbage" as she referred to it in an NPR interview—her application was accepted, and she attained an M.F.A.

Kauffman's debut novel, Another Place You've Never Been, was published in 2016. Two years later came The Gunners, a book placed on many "must read," "eagerly awaited," and "a best book of 2018" lists.

She currently lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. (From various online sources, including WMRA Public Radio.)

Book Reviews
Unusually for a literary novelist, Kauffman has no fear of overt feeling. When she explores an emotion, she does it with absolute candor. Her characters announce their grief and affection and rage in a way that few others do.… If it's rare for a contemporary literary novelist to address emotion so bluntly, it's even rarer if that novelist is female.… The brilliance of The Gunners is that it helps you. Kauffman teaches you the right way to read her prose.… Another thing literary novelists don't often let themselves do is write novels with morals, or messages, but The Gunners has one. It's clear, though not easy: Accept your emotions. Feel them bluntly, plainly. Allow yourself to flinch.
NPR Books

Novels about friendships are the new fad but trust me when I tell you that this one is truly superlative. A gracefully endearing story which delves deeply into the nature of childhood friendship while also shining a light on chronic illness and LGTBQ rights.
Chicago Review of Books

In the beautifully wrought The Gunners , life ends not with a whimper, but with a bang.… This engrossing book's suspense lies not just in what will happen, but in what already has.… Kauffman is interested in the muddiness of love—how it can be selfish and desperate, even cruel.… When it comes to love, Kauffman suggests, we're equal parts predator and prey.
Oprah Magazine

A vivid, layered novel.… Endearing and intimate, Kauffman steers clear of veering into cliche, reviving a well-worn premise into something new and exciting.
Harper's Bazaar

This story examines how the secrets held and harbored by friends, and the defining relationships of childhood and adolescence, never fully leave us (1 of the Best Books of 2018, So Far).

A riveting portrayal of the joys and mysteries of growing up, and of friendship itself.

A moving novel.… Each character comes to terms with their dark past, and uncertain futures—like an intimate hangout session, dashed with suspense and few extra layers of emotional beauty. You'll find yourself thinking of Freaks and Geeks, The Big Chill, and maybe all those friends you've been meaning to text (The Must List).
Entertainment Weekly

This gorgeous story of loss and friendship follows a group of childhood best friends when they reunite as adults to grapple with a friend’s suicide.… Weaving back and forth through the past and present, this tender story explores the secrets we carry from the past (1 of the Best Books of 2018, So Far).
Real Simple

(Starred review) [P]erceptive, funny, and endearing…, this remarkable novel is just as satisfying and provides readers with an entire cast of characters who will feel like old friends upon finishing.
Publishers Weekly

Neither dark nor despairing, this work admirably expresses the satisfying comfort derived from… long-term friendships even as it evokes sadness about the losses and challenges that come with transitioning to adulthood. A successful… effort
Library Journal

A little bit like The Big Chill , Kauffman’s quiet and deep second novel reconciles the responsibilities we carry and the secrets we keep with the outsize pleasure of being known and loved by a chosen family.

[V]ivid and compelling characters struggling with what is in some ways the most universal dilemma: how to grow up.… Kauffman lays bare the lessons of youth and truth. A layered and loving bildungsroman of friendship.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
We'll add publisher questions if and when they're available; in the meantime, use our LitLovers talking points to help start a discussion for THE GUNNERS … then take off on your own:

1. Rebecca Kauffman has said that "Mikey is the heart and soul of the book." How would you describe him, and what makes him central to the novel?

2. Follow-up to Question 1: How do the novel's other characters differ from Mikey's natural kindness? How do their various personalities serve as foils to Mikey? Do you have a favorite and/or least favorite Gunner? If so, who … and why?

3. Each childhood home of the Gunners was different: Mikey's was quiet and somber, while Alice's household was loud and chaotic. How do the family environments shape each of the Gunners—as children and, now, as adults?

4. The Gunners tell their stories, offering personal histories of the arc of their lives. In what ways have they changed (if at all) from children to adults? Also, consider the group dynamics: has the way in which the members relate to one another, or to the group as a whole, changed from when they were children? Do they behave differently toward one another as adults?

5. Do you have a group of childhood friends that still gathers on occasion (or perhaps frequently)? If so, what has held you together over the years? Have the internal dynamics of your group changed or remained the same?

6. The core of Questions 4 & 5—and of the novel itself—is this: are people are capable of change? If your answer is "yes," are the changes on the surface … or deep down? If you answer is "not really," why not? Mikey and Alice discuss that very question. What are their thoughts?

7. Another question underlying The Gunners is whether we alter our behavior to suit the people around us. What do you think?

8. Alice likes to be in charge. Is that because she simply has a need to be in control; or does she want to pull people out of their self-protective shells? In other words, is her desire for control selfish or beneficient? Whatever your answer, how does her controlling instinct affect others, in particular, Mikey?

9. Alice quotes her dying grandmother: "Sure death's a little scary but life is the real bitch." Care to comment on that?

10. Mikey wonders near the novel's end whether "having a dear friend, and being a dear friend, might be almost as good as being a good man." What do you think? What does being a "good" person actually mean?

11. The group names itself after the mailbox of the abandoned house where they meet—and Kauffman uses it as the book's title. Are there other meanings the title might refer to, figuratively or symbolically?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online and off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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