Since I started this series, I’ve reviewed books according to criteria of relevance, appropriate audience, strengths, and weaknesses. This method is a shortcut allowing me to provide a compass for my readers without wasting their time.
This time, though, I’m reviewing a book that’s different from my usual subject. It doesn’t seek to inform – not in the traditional sense, anyway – so much as it does to entertain. So for this installment, I’m throwing out all my carefully calculated and weighed criteria and instead, I am just going to talk about Philip R. Hirsh III’s latest anthology of short stories, called The Guns We Left Behind: Tales Of Culture and Caliber.
How do I summarize, compress, bottle a collection of tales, fables, and yarns without getting lost? I could start at the beginning.
Given the subject matter of the book, I can think of no better firearm to feature than a rifle that was conceived in Belgium by the apprentice to the (Mormon American) greatest firearms designer in history, originally based around a Nazi rifle cartridge, shaped by the whims of American bureaucracy and government, adopted and used by the fledgling Jewish state, and finally rebuilt in semi-automatic for the American commercial market. The rifle is, simply, oozing with history. So is Philip’s book. In it, the reader finds tales of the duck blind, of relatives soldiering on in the Second World War, fictional (but plausible) tales of self-defense both physical and verbal, and of doing things that in the moment were surely exhilarating but in hindsight were clearly foolish and dangerous.
One story of the latter kind that Phil tells is of his father and his friend in St. Croix, using a rental car to drive-by-hunt dove with a .410 shotgun. After many successful, if unsporting, outings, the inevitable happens and the shotgun obliterates the back seat, neatly missing Hirsh Jr’s arm and torso. Through pure serendipity, Phil’s father not only walks away but gets away with it, too.
These sort of irresponsible and dangerous defenses against boredom were nevertheless present in Phil’s generation’s early years, and downright common in the childhoods of his father’s generation. In his writing, Phil is careful not to judge these things too closely – history happened, even if the present looks on in horror. This contrast, between what Phil calls “the Golden Age of guns” and our modern world filled with cares from the sensible to the politically correct, is the single most evident thread common to all the episodes. After reading, I want to ask “that was the youth of their generation, what will the next be like?” Filled with crushing responsibility and nannying, surely, but hopefully no less alive.
Some of the stories are outright funny, but others – such as the retelling of a feral cat that threatened a Hirsh family gathering – carry an undertone of humor that Phil leaves as a sort of slow-punchline. The feral cat story, for example, is prefaced with a dead serious warning about the dangers of feral cats and the diseases they can spread, but the story ends with a Hirsh holding a smoking .243 the whole family (kids and all) unintentionally witnessed him use to neutralize the particularly obnoxious feral. The joke is told punchline-first for more effect; feral cats are dangerous, dontcha know!
Phil writes well, and his latest book reads easily for when the brain wanders and needs something to occupy it. The nature of anthology meant I read it leisurely, but I didn’t feel it was ever difficult to work through or clunky. If we can convict Phil of any literary crime, it’s writing dialogue that is as descriptive and colorful as his prose. For that, I’ll only level misdemeanor charges.
I don’t think The Guns We Left Behind is for the easily offended, or those liable to take everything seriously. It deliberately includes episodes of reckless abandon and excess – all involving firearms – that would make some look away in disgust. “Oh! That’s totally reckless and irresponsible!” a voice in my head said at some scenes. Yes, but it happened, is the response.
The Guns We Left Behind can be purchased on Amazon for $12 US, in new paperback.