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Artful Hate or Ballardian BadThink?

2,299 words

Jay Black
Guttersnipe
Amazon kindle, 2018

“Suburbs are far more sinister places than most city dwellers imagine. Their very blandness forces the imagination into new areas. I mean, one’s got to get up in the morning thinking of a deviant act, merely to make certain of one’s freedom. It needn’t be much; kicking the dog will do.” – J. G. Ballard, interviewed by Thomas Frick[1]

“I’d live there if I were a rat.” – Jack Richter, Guttersnipe

I’m not sure if this is supposed to be an “Alt-Right” novella, but if it is, it’s a very unusual one, and well worth an afternoon or two to read. Self-published in 2004, in a print run of 200 copies, it reappears now in 2018 as a kindle, with an Afterword by the author.

Amazon says:

Jay Black is an Anglo-Canadian poet, author of fiction and photographer. A former resident of Calgary, London and Toronto, he now makes his home in Vancouver, British Columbia.

His poetry, in English and in French translation, has appeared in more than twenty literary journals on both sides of the Atlantic. In 2008, his bilingual chapbook Blackbird Hollow : Le creux du merle earned two prizes at the 38th International Competition of Fine Arts organized by l’association Rencontres artistiques et littéraires in Ste-Geneviève-des-Bois, France. [2]

Impressive, especially since things had begun to slip[3] a few years before:

In 2004, his novella Guttersnipe was investigated by Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the British Columbia Attorney General for possible violation of Canada’s hate propaganda law. The investigation concluded without arrest, charge or seizure of materials and the first edition paperback is still available through 25 Canadian university libraries.

As Joyce had his Ulysses, Nabokov his Lolita, and Burroughs his Naked Lunch, so Black has his Guttersnipe. By invoking such illustrious parallels, you may intuit that I have a high opinion of the work under review.

But first, our story:

Jack Richter is a Canadian ex-military sharpshooter with a lot of grudges against the powers that be for the way things are. He blames the government both for the base closure that led to his discharge and for failing to provide him with any useful civilian skills. He blames society in general for the affirmative action that makes job seeking a waste of time, and for filling his city with Third World scum that compete with a garbage strike for his nausea.[4] Now he’s cashed his last unemployment check.

Oh, and remember that sharpshooter thing; this can’t end well.

So far, we are in the land of post-Columbine doomporn, what some on the dissident Right – with which such writers seem inevitably intertwined – have called miserablism or “cockroach literature.” Angry losers taking revenge on a loathsome world that despises them. A perfect match, by and for the supposed “haters” of what the media calls the “Alt Right.”

How, then, did the author escape the clutches of Canada’s Star Chamber proceedings? In his Afterword, the author speculates that the selection of the book by 24 Canadian university libraries swayed the investigators; all these librarians “hold graduate degrees and know hate literature when they see it.” Well, anyone familiar with the antics of the thoroughly poz’d American Library Association – especially during its “Banned Books Week” — would demur. To paraphrase William F. Buckley, I’d sooner trust the first two hundred names in the Toronto phone book to identify “hate literature.”

The author is on firmer ground when he continues:

What separates it from classification as hate propaganda? While it explores the mind of a racist antihero who encounters conflict within a culture of institutionalized political correctness, the author’s intentional separation of the limited third person narrator’s point of view ‒ which maintains inoffensive, politically correct language throughout ‒ and the thoughts, words and actions of its protagonist, structurally excludes it from such consideration.

Indeed; as Henry James emphasized, the selection of the right point of view is crucial. While first person narration in this sort of thing has a long and distinguished history, back to, say, Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, it does tend to reinforce the naïve idea that the narrator and the author are one, or are at least in agreement; hence, the image of the “angry Alt-Right loser” who presumably has authored such tales of angry losers.

Here, however, the author can use the third person, or omniscient, narrator to further his purpose:

While [the] violent reaction [of Columbine style losers] is impossible to justify, it was and remains the author’s’ opinion that it might be understood.

Guttersnipe concerns racism. It does not condone it.[5]

The author is able to dissipate most of the sympathy or even neutrality the reader might start off with fairly quickly. Jack Richter is a violent prick with an unearned sense of entitlement. Anyone would hate to have him as a neighbor. Having skipped college for the Army, he seemed to expect to pick up civilian skills by osmosis, or along with his discharge papers;[6] he probably spent all of this spare time cleaning his rifle and hazing new recruits. He admits he “had not made a realistic effort to find work” since his discharge, and while he feels “disgust at the thought of applying for provincial income assistance benefits” (what you Yanks call ‘welfare’), he rejects a job teaching gun safety and shooting at a local range as “beneath him.”

The idea of prostituting his small arms mastery to the assortment of bored cowboys he would encounter at such an establishment exacerbated the nausea he had suffered from since the strike’s third week. For him, shooting was an art, not a recreational pursuit, and he would not debase it as an instructor to those unable to appreciate his proficiency.

Instead, he wanders around taking out his inner rage by verbally demeaning and physically attacking anyone non-White, such as an Asian store clerk, just because he suggests it’s his lucky day. He’s a white Michael Brown.

The blood in Richter’s veins coursed with cocky hate as he swaggered out the door to mount his bike and ride it to the market.

The clerk turns out to be correct, the Year of the Rat is indeed lucky. The garbage strike has led to an avalanche of rats on Granville Island – really, not an island but a gentrified wharf area full of yuppie/tourist businesses – and Richter is hired to use his shooting and tactical skills to exterminate the brutes.

He acknowledged that while the job would permit the paid practice of his raison d’etre, rodent extermination was no one’s idea of dignified labour. Nonetheless, he reckoned the lack of pride he would find in the work would be compensated for by improved moving target performance and pleasure derived from gunning the filthy pests down.

At this point, the story takes a new turn, and becomes something very different from the usual White loser porn, beyond even the third person technique.

Maybe it’s because I associate Canada with Cronenberg, but as Richter wandered around the dark/floodlit, silent, rat-infested gentrified wharf I got a distinct Ballardian vibe.[7] Richter’s wanderings in the suburban labyrinth, stalking an implacable foe, are vividly conveyed through a Ballardian increase of carefully compiled and precise minutiae; the author as sharpshooter:

Three empty magazines later, enough corpses littered the routes to instill wariness in those still willing to risk the excursion. Unlike the uninterrupted, half-speed runs they favoured when undisturbed, the rats now broke into short sprints interspersed by brief rests behind cover. Their movements had taken on an unexpected degree of coordination. They staggered their runs so that no more than two were exposed at once. Only after they reached cover would another, or two, dash out to negotiate the next segment of their trip. They took care to minimize distances between the end point of one sprint and the start point of the next to reduce their exposure time, and to vary the order of locations from which runs began and ended. They had, he thought, developed a counteroffensive.

Amazed at their capacity to cooperate as members of separate colonies in a gritty campaign to secure access to their food supply, he wondered how they coordinated their efforts. It was too advanced for instinct. As much as he despised them, he had developed a grudging admiration for their tenacity and tactical intelligence.

His enthusiasm began to wane two hours into his shift, despite the fact he had already accumulated more than 200 kills. It seemed the further on he trod, the more apparent it became that something fierce had seized him from within, an unrealized awareness that burned at his entrails without mercy. He wondered if he had contracted the plague.

Added to this is the dreamlike, surrealistic events; he immediately starts a series of fights with the Sikh security guard (Why? Why not?) that culminate in accidentally shooting him to death. The detectives that arrive seem rather uninterested if not congratulatory. Nothing happens, some time passes and then:

Curious as to who had been assigned to replace the deceased guard, Richter entered the administration building’s front door on arrival at the Island. There, before the front desk, stood another Sikh guard. He was better built, stood several centimetres taller than Richter and appeared a decade younger than the deceased guard.

It’s an American Psycho touch that suggests Richter’s mental state may be less important than the deterioration of the rational order of the world.

And speaking of things psycho, there’s the President of the Merchants’ Association who hires him; a thickly accented Scotsman deliriously named Baldie Cuthbertson.[8]

I’ve had a wee look at your resume and you’ll be pleased to know you’re just the sort of lad we’re seeking to fill the post. I’d like to meet with you to discuss the job in detail and to show you around the grounds. Why don’t you stop by the office tomorrow morning and we’ll chat over brunch? I’ll expect you at ten o’clock. We’re in the Island’s administration building, first on the promenade as you pass through the arch. I’m out the rest of today, but do call back to confirm you can make it with a message. Bye for noo [sic].”

The President handed him a master key to the market’s sheds. “You’ll have free reign over the grounds at 2: 00 AM. Taa-leo [tally ho?], Corporal!”

He’s suspiciously accommodating to Richter, not only hiring him on the spot, but taking him out for brunch and is completely unconcerned when Richter kills the security guard. From his first physical appearance –

A tall, slender man dressed in white shirt-sleeves, khaki pants and deck shoes stood at its entrance. “Corporal?” he inquired, as Richter removed his riding gloves.

— he suggests a kind of psychopomp, such as the series of odd little men who greet Aschenbach at each stage of his journey to his Death in Venice. Richter is chasing his quarry around another plague-infected island, but this time rather than the transcendentally beautiful Tadzio, it’s a giant female rat he’s dubbed Oprah.

Had he committed himself to a pointless exercise in seeking to annihilate the thing that had come to embody everything he despised? How could he avoid questioning his own sanity when his penultimate goal amounted to destroying a rodent, however fat and ugly, that served as a scapegoat on which he would exact some semblance of vengeance on life for the pile of trash it had dumped on him?

Alas, after this artistic triumph, the novella again shifts focus and returns to the mundane as it heads into its inevitable mass shooting dénouement. After his suicide-by-police, the epilogue returns to the plain of heightened reality with a vision of Richter’s afterlife that suggests Rosemary’s Baby if written by Andy Nowicki.

Even in this, Black recalls Ballard:

Many of his stories start with great promise, wowing us with his perfect use of the English language, and flooring us with his imagery and creativity and his interesting characters — only to come to a not-quite-fulfilling ending.[9]

Despite a bit of a letdown, the island sequence is a fine piece of writing and the novella as a whole demonstrates a far more sophisticated approach to the doomed loser trope so common among writers on the dissident Right. Highly recommended to anyone reading Counter-Currents.

Notes

[1] “J. G. Ballard, The Art of Fiction No. 85;” Paris Review (Winter, 1984), here.

[2] Le prix Minerve for “a suite of published or unpublished poems dedicated to knowledge and reflection in the poet’s chosen subject,” and Le prix mots secrets for “a collection of poems that recalls the state of love, its attitude and surroundings.”

[3] “Like they said, he had an impressive career. Maybe too impressive. I mean, perfect. He was being groomed for one of the top slots in the corporation. General, chief of staff, anything. In 1964, he returned from a tour with Advisory Command in Vietnam, and things started to slip.” John Milius, Apocalypse Now.

[4] “He could not decide which reeked more, the piles of trash that cluttered the walk to his place or what he saw as blatant reverse discrimination instituted and enforced by proponents of political correctness.”

[5] As Chris Rock said of OJ: “I’m not saying I agree… but I understand.”

[6] Those recruitment ads aren’t lying, are they?

[7] Associated though Crash (1996) of course, but Cronenberg’s much earlier They Came from Within (aka Shivers, 1975) clearly channels Ballard’ 1975 High Rise, “where a luxury apartment complex degenerates when its residents take up arms against each other, prompted by nothing but disputes over clogged garbage chutes.” “J.G. Ballard’s Eerily Accurate Dystopias: His novels “Crash” and “Super-Cannes” depict a world of tech-enhanced luxury and crushing malaise” by Becca Rothfeld; The New Republic, March 14, 2018, here.

[8] Is he the son of bald and big-eared Cuthbert Rumbold, a character on one of my favorite TV shows as a child in England, Are You Being Served?

[9] “J. G. Ballard: Style And Fantastical Themes 1956 to 1969” by “Hammering Shield,” July 29, 2013, here.

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4 Comments

  1. JIm
    Posted July 26, 2018 at 1:51 am | Permalink

    One imagines that this could translate into another genre given the shooter element. I could see this as an indie video game complete w/ voice acting. The sniper motif could be the gameplay. Anyone familiar w/ the several year old, controversial shooter game “Hatred” can see what I’m talking about. This being somewhat more intelligent however.

    I really did like the comment about Nowicki writing “Rosemary’s Baby.” W/ Andy’s quirks, one thinks he might just have a really good horror story in himself if he ever sat down and let it come out.

    • Posted July 28, 2018 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

      Hello, JIm. Not sure if it’s proper etiquette for an author to comment under a review of his own work but thanks for the video game idea. I’ll shop it around. Staying with your sense the story has visual potential, I thought it might hold fodder for a graphic novel. The form’s fairly foreign to me though so please advise if you or anyone else knows of a graphic novelist who might consider the project.

      I enjoyed the “Rosemary’s Baby if written by Andy Nowicki” allusion to Guttersnipe’s end, as well. Peter’s ability to intuit such connections is one reason I sent him a review copy.

  2. leech
    Posted July 25, 2018 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    This review brought to mind Britton’s “Lord Horror”, which may or may not be of interest to the Alt Right readers. There are certainly some similarities given the subject matter at the background.

    • Posted July 28, 2018 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

      leech, please see my reply to JIm re: Lord Horror.

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