By Vic Venters
Guns and shooting, especially shotgun shooting—and characters sketched from American gun culture—propel the narratives in each of three related novellas that comprise Bang Bang Tales, by first-time author Clark Stoneridge, the pen name of a skilled writer who is clearly comfortable in competitive-clay circles, in the boxed-bird ring and at opulent private quail plantations in south Georgia.
The first novella, “The Has-Been,” pits a fading, alcoholic ex-Olympic shooter against an old nemesis in a tale that contrasts forgiveness and redemption with the taste of unholy revenge. “The Showman” brings an aged trick shooter out of retirement to help rescue an iconic-but-foundering American gunmaker but with grievous, unintended consequences to its would-be savior.
“The Ricochet,” the longest and most complex of the trio, unspools over two generations of the Winston dynasty, founders of same-said gunmaker, a fictionalized old-line Yankee sporting gun and armaments manufacturer that at its peak helped win the Second World War but is now struggling to survive with uninspired leadership and costly-to-make, out-of-fashion designs. Told out of chronological sequence to the first two, “The Ricochet” is at once a Poe-esque story of a child’s macabre killing and the tragic consequences of its cover-up as well as an informed take on the latter-day eclipse of America’s traditional firearms industry and the ethics of modern-day corporate capitalism. In it the denouement of each is not unrelated.
Stoneridge displays a commanding knowledge of US and European history, of boardroom machinations and of the fineries of shooting with a shotgun. More than that, though, he is a stiletto-sharp observer of human nature and especially of American social conventions. As the stories unfold, a panoply of intertwined characters—WASPs and Jews, old money and new, rich and poor, black and white, Northerners and Southerners, street hustlers and hedge-fund managers—co-mingle, cooperate, compete, collide and, more than occasionally, copulate.
Fans of Tom Wolfe will note a theme binding each novella is that of status—or status anxiety: the deeds those who aspire to it will commit to achieve it and, particularly, the turpitude and despair into which otherwise “decent, respectable” men and women will sink to keep it. Tautly told and fast-paced enough to be a page-turner, Bang Bang Tales makes for disquieting, sometimes disturbing reading—but like all serious fiction, it is unflinching and compelling. An impressive debut.