Cameron Raynes, First Person Shooter. MidnightSun Publishing, 2016. RRP: $24.99, 261pp. ISBN:9781925227079
In the Australian bush setting of Cameron Raynes’ novel First Person Shooter, the gun buyback of the late 1990s might never have happened. It seems as if the entire population of Raynes’ rural Bridgetown owns or can at least operate a firearm, from teenage girls to ageing Vietnam War veterans. As the narrator, fifteen-year-old Jayden, says: “We’re used to sorting out our own problems.” (28)
The main problem confronting Jayden and his family is the presence of his best friend Shannon’s ex-stepbrother, the unhinged, built-like-a-brick-outhouse Pete. Shannon’s mother Madeleine is on the verge of being released from prison for killing Pete’s abusive father, and Pete is ready to avenge his loss.
But Pete is not the only threat. The town has a long list of issues: Bikie gangs. Meth labs. Kids addicted to video games. Jayden himself has a dead mother, a drug-using father, and a debilitating stutter. There are stories about school shootings and climate change whenever the radio goes on, and snakes and redback spiders loom each time you leave the house. No wonder everyone in Bridgetown has a gun.
Aside from shootings, both real and simulated, there is violence everywhere Jayden turns. His father’s drug habit originated after a car accident in which the other driver, a promising footballer, was high; he died at the scene. A school bully claims to have eaten a fellow student’s guinea pig. At Max’s Meats, where Jayden works after school, one of the butchers is missing teeth and parts of his fingers. At school they read poems about war and stories about murder.
Jayden is both enthralled by this violence and repelled by it. A keen player of the warfare game Call of Duty, the fact that “it’s like every time I stutter everyone gets to look straight through me, into my soul, seeing me dying of shame and fear” (12) often leaves Jayden wishing for a weapon, and he’s even suspended after accidentally taking ammunition to school. On the surface he’s a textbook example of a potential school shooter. Luckily, there are signs that Jayden still has a grip on reality. His last attempt at shooting feral foxes around his dad’s property left him squeamish, and despite his problems with articulation—“There are a heap of things I want to say but never do” (7)—he is passionate about poetry.
Jayden is also pained by the declining health of his old German Shepherd mix, Charlie. The presence of a family dog quite literally on his last legs could be seen as heavy handed, but Charlie is another way of bringing the teenaged narrator down to earth. Jayden resents his father, his school, and his disability, and needs someone in his life to love unconditionally. At the same time, Charlie’s decline forms Jayden’s path to adulthood, forcing him to make tough decisions. The violence isn’t just for show: in Bridgetown, living things get killed.
First Person Shooter takes a bleak view of a world where people turn to drugs for an income or to escape, and defend their territory with firearms and steel-capped boots. But there is also a strong sense of community and love of the bush in the novel, with crisp descriptions of the sights, smells, and sounds of nature as Jayden and Shannon crash through it. The liveliness of the landscape, baking and difficult as it is, contrasts with the tired appearance of the eponymous hundred-year-old bridge, which is “brown and skanky” (9) in close proximity but prettier from a distance. Altogether the town is no picture postcard, with areas like ‘The Flats’, where “Every fifteen years or so the whole place gets flooded out and the snakes take over. Still, they’re used to them out there.” (85) Like the recurring theme of pine, the place is quietly toxic.
The characters are not always as uniquely drawn as the setting. There’s a life-changing English teacher, a grotty bully with two faceless cronies, and a litany of senior townspeople given the epithet ‘old’. Jayden’s love interest Shannon is the quintessential doesn’t-know-how-lovely-she-is tomboy with “this casual athletic air that drives boys crazy” (108), and one of the few who don’t hassle him for stammering. She also has a flaw: twin birthmarks that may be off-putting to others, but to Jayden make her even more perfect. Her birthmarks and his stutter paint them both as damaged and therefore made for one another. Though Jayden himself is a sympathetic character who, like many teenagers, fears “that deep down there’s something wrong with me, something broken inside” (77), more information about his mother’s death and his earlier move from the city would provide further dimensions.
Though the notion of there being a threat around every corner is overwritten at times—even ginger beer can explode at any minute—overall, First Person Shooter is an unromantic and well-executed depiction of rural life in the twenty-first century. The events are steadily paced and tension builds as each day passes without a full-on assault from Pete. The violence is resolved a little too neatly, with punishment delivered to those who fail to demonstrate softness and the perpetrator of the climax predictable as soon as they first appear. But Jayden’s final musings are encouraging without wandering too far over to the bright side, as he learns to take control of the things that have thus far controlled him. This could arguably have been a more realistic way for the narrative to deal with the problems of guns and drugs in Bridgetown; then again, the thorough comeuppance does fit with the narrative’s gothic leanings, and seeing thugs get their just desserts is certainly satisfying. Maybe that’s why Jayden loves war games so much.
Brooke Dunnell’s short stories have been published in Westerly, Best Australian Stories, Meanjin, New Australian Stories 2, and elsewhere. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Western Australia.