Refusing to Solve a Solvable Problem: On Tom McAllister’s ‘How to Be Safe’

Jen Corrigan
Apr 7, 2019 · 7 min read

McAllister’s commentary on our current political climate provides unflinching insights into the epidemic of American gun violence.

Tom McAllister
Novel | 240 Pages | 5.8” x 8.5” | Reviewed: Hardcover
978–1631494130 | First Edition | $25.95
Liveright | New York City | BUY HERE

This past Valentine’s Day marked the one-year anniversary of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland. When I saw the headline pop up on my Twitter feed, I had to do a Google search for the name of the shooting to make sure I knew which one of the hundreds of mass shootings it was. The pervasiveness of American mass violence is impossible to ignore yet impossible to handle emotionally on a daily basis, and when I can, I actively try to avoid the repeated horrific news coverage for my own self-care. Tom McAllister’s How to Be Safe is the first novel I’ve read that has directly confronted the issue of American gun violence, a problem that affects no other developed nation to such an egregious extent.

In the book, Anna Crawford, a teacher who has been suspended for an angry outburst in class, is falsely accused of committing a school shooting. In a split second, her quiet hometown of Seldom Falls regresses into chaos as residents try to cope with the realization that they are not safe anywhere, not even small-town America. In his second novel, McAllister builds a semi-satirical world where Anna bears witness as the residents establish a cult, a militia, and a vigilante justice group, and the government employs high-tech robots and drones to police the streets; like in our own society, the representatives do everything they can to solve this problem, except for the obvious.

“A gun walks into a bar. The bartender pours it a beer and says, ‘You new in town?’ then the gun shoots him in the face because it is a gun.”

You wouldn’t expect a novel about a school shooting and the constant threat of violence to be humorous, but How to Be Safe made me laugh out loud multiple times. Similar in tone to other satirical novels like Catch-22 and Animal Farm, McAllister employs humor via his protagonist to demonstrate the sheer ridiculousness of the status quo. Anna’s commentary is sharp and biting, and her caustic observations highlight the absurdity. With a razor-sharp wit, Anna says the things you’re not supposed to say and skewers the propaganda and dangerous rhetoric that rises from the small-town tragedy. The novel is a cultural commentary on our current political climate, providing unflinching insights into the epidemic of American gun violence and the people in charge who refuse to solve a solvable problem. In addition to McAllister’s satirical world-building, the book is funny on a sentence level. McAllister’s language choice mirrors the dark humor of the content, with phrases like the shooter having “time to kill,” or the community’s reactive and misguided “war on violence.” Both on a macro and micro level, the incisive humor propels the novel.

“Robbie wanted me to congratulate him for being sad about a mass murder. Men want to be rewarded for having emotions. They think it’s an accomplishment to have sincere thoughts and feel bad about things.”

Gun violence is almost exclusively perpetrated by men, particularly men who have a history of violence against women, a fact that McAllister not only acknowledges but emphasizes. Though bullets don’t discriminate based on gender, in a broader context it is statistically more dangerous to be a woman, and we witness this violence in Anna’s everyday life. One day, she walks down the street and is accosted by a man who insists he wants to take her picture. When she says no, he becomes increasingly aggressive, even grabbing her by the hips and pressing his erection against her. It’s a scene that is familiar to the majority of women. No matter where she goes, Anna does not feel safe.

Anna is not only a woman, she is the wrong kind of woman, placing her in even more danger. Because of her temper and refusal to be “good,” she is disliked by her coworkers, her students, and her neighbors, eliminating any possible support network. Women are angrier than ever and are enacting change on a grand scale, and using a “nasty” woman protagonist for the dissenting mouthpiece was a strong choice. The author is a man, but Anna is not depicted through the lens of the male gaze; I was relieved when I finished the book and had read exactly zero passages about Anna’s breasts. Instead, Anna is a dynamic character with unexpected strengths and weaknesses, and a real, complete history behind her fears and desires. How to Be Safe is not only a commentary on American gun violence but also a feminist narrative that acknowledges women’s anger as a fount of strength and a driving force for changing the collective mindset.

“Good guys get to be aggressive. Good girls have to be quiet and submissive and do as they’re told. Good guys get to be heroes. Good girls get to cook dinner for the heroes and was their dishes afterward. Good guys get blowjobs, good girls give them. Good guys carry guns and feel safe and are surrounded by a force field of good-guyness. Good girls have to wait around for someone to save them.”

The core of Anna’s life is fear and the need to feel safe, but she can’t ignore the misguided ways the Seldom Falls residents try to alleviate their own terror. Though the school shooter (consciously unnamed) was a white teenage boy, people in Anna’s predominantly white town instead choose to view people of color as the true menaces. Wholly ignoring that the majority of mass shooters are white, the community consciously or unconsciously uses their fear as justification for racism. Despite the comparative slimness of the book, McAllister makes a point of directly addressing every consequence of American gun violence.

“Most of the calls about suspicious activity in town were about dark-skinned men, even though the shooter himself had been a pale white boy. The most dangerous thing someone could do was walk through Seldom Falls with a different skin color.”

The book is consistent in its blend of biting humor and seriousness, but my one reservation was that I grew a little restless with the emotional tone, which felt flat in a few places. Perhaps this is because I read the book in just a couple sittings and possibly missed some nuances, or maybe I’m asking the book to do something it didn’t set out to do, but part of me wanted more instances of warmth to balance out Anna’s constant despair. Fear paralyzes Anna, so it fits within her character to resist the help that her brother, Calvin, and boyfriend, Robbie, attempt to provide. The ending implies a tentative sense of hope and healing for Anna, but the progress from point to point in the story occasionally felt abrupt. Although a clearer progression of Anna’s emotional repair seemed to be slightly lacking for me, the narrative arc as a whole is more than solid.

How to Be Safe is a novel that feeds on and explores contradictions. While the catalyst of the plot is a tragic school shooting, the humor in the book is incredibly sharp, thereby accentuating the absolute absurdity of the American gun problem. The townspeople’s misguided responses are blown entirely out of proportion, their contradictory fear of guns and of losing their guns propelling them to place their efforts into ridiculous projects. McAllister’s novel is a timely one, and though I admire the book, I hope it ages poorly. I hope in 10 years, it will represent a cultural issue that has since been solved, and that readers will no longer be able to identify with the intense terror that invades Anna’s life. This book has come at a moment of transition, spurred in large part by the strength and courage of the Parkland survivors who are continuing to lead the movement toward greater gun control in America. How to Be Safe not only viciously critiques the ineffective methods we have for curbing mass violence, but charts the personal and public ways we deal with grief. It’s a work of fiction that encourages its readers to rise up and participate in the change.

JEN CORRIGAN is a Nonfiction Editor for Alternating Current Press and a Staff Book Reviewer for The Coil. A nominee for the 2017 Pushcart Prize, her prose has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Pithead Chapel, The Tishman Review, Hypertext Magazine, and elsewhere. Visit her at her website.

The Coil

Literature to change your lightbulb.

Jen Corrigan

Written by

Jen Corrigan is a prose writer. She writes book reviews for The Coil.

The Coil

The Coil

Literature to change your lightbulb.

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