Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Dare to Keep Kids Off Street Justice

Chuck Wendig, Atlanta Burns
“Recent films in which the good lawman comes to grief when he tries to fight the system (Walking Tall, Serpico) have the moral ‘Don’t stick your neck out’, but this may not be what the directors intend. … Content lies in the structure, in what happens, not in what the character say.”
—Keith Johnstone
Atlanta Burns never wanted to be a high school Charles Bronson. She simply saw an act of bullying in process, and stopped it. But now she has a reputation as the girl who “gets things done,” and local students begin hiring her to fix their hash. Sadly, Atlanta quickly discovers that fixing the awfulness in her face sometimes empowers the awfulness hiding behind her back.

I truly want to enjoy Chuck Wendig’s cult novel, now making its transition to mainstream audience awareness, but Wendig keeps getting in my way. His themes of peace through superior firepower would make me uncomfortable in an R-rated movie, much less a YA novel. And structurally, it mimics recent trends in screenwriting that reveal how Wendig would probably rather write a treatment script.

Chapter One starts with Atlanta witnessing three bullies whipping a Latino kid’s ass. A PTSD survivor herself, Atlanta maces all three, earning one new ally and three bitter foes. This follows Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! structure, starting with a selfless act of undisguised heroism. Except it places a brown person in the role reserved for a small, defenseless animal. You understand why that’s problematic.

Atlanta herself represents an aggressive doubling down on the Sam Spade story model. Deeply damaged, she views grown-ups with learned distrust. She believes in justice, but resents order. Thus, confronted with fellow students oppressed by adults, she commences what criminologists would charitably call a vigilante rampage, rebalancing the scales by whatever means come available.

She confronts two enemies herein. (This book combines two stories previously published separately.) First, a White Pride subculture perpetrating hate crimes on high school homosexuals conceals darker secrets permeating the adult community. Then, a schoolgirl’s horribly mangled puppy opens doors on suburban dogfighting, and a shocking pay-to-play violence ring.

Chuck Wendig
Admittedly, Wendig tells these stories well. His prose flows fluidly, with telegraphic dialog and Elmore Leonard-like punch. If Wendig told this story with adult characters, I might not seek this book out, but I’d certainly appreciate his eye for telling detail and apt phrasing. Perhaps he follows occasional philosophical cow paths, and Atlanta sometimes soliloquizes, but in writing this dense, we can spare occasional minutes for authorial social conscience.

No, my problem isn’t anything Wendig says, nor how he says it. It’s that everything accumulates, everything mounts up, until we see something hiding behind Wendig’s explicit narrative. Atlanta preaches anti-racist, anti-homophobic, and anti-violence sermons while wielding guns and nightsticks. Wendig’s progressive social message camouflages nihilistic themes of humankind’s irresistible, ultimately savage nature.

This story putatively presents Atlanta as the antihero, a deeply flawed but basically admirable Warrior Woman standing fast against bullying teens and corrupt adults. But she gives me a different vibe. She deliberately antagonizes authority, trades justice for money, and has a strictly ad-hoc ethical code without external foundation. Basically, she has the psychology of a criminal.

Atlanta ain't Nancy Drew, kids.

She doesn't follow standard NRA guidelines about firearms safety, social engagement, or "good guys with a gun," either. Pointing a gun, whether or not she actually uses it, is her first choice. Her gun technique is so haphazard, only authorial grace keeps her from killing somebody. Because her technique resembles Seventies cop dramas, mercifully immune to blowback.

Seriously. At one point, she fires near another kid and misses his head by under twelve inches. With a borrowed Ladysmith revolver. Bullshit. Nobody, outside Hollywood, has such precision with a handgun.

My concern, or one anyway, is: what if teens consider what they read normative? Sometimes violence stops even worse violence. But not often, and even less when that worse violence has official status. Handguns, action heroes notwithstanding, are unreliable, and make better threats than tools. Powerful people use populist resistance to justify crackdowns. Answering evil people in their own language mainly ratifies their bigotry.

Wendig clearly wants us to derive moral lessons from Atlanta's exploits. He even concludes by citing weblinks to anti-hate crime and anti-dogfighting activist groups. But I have difficulty separating Wendig's moral from Atlanta's actions. The ultimate moral is seemingly: if anyone violates your values, shoot them. Or threaten to, anyway.

I think we've all seen too much Nietzschean street justice recently, don't you?

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