by Alice Stephens
Though toxic masculinity has emerged as a significant force in the American political landscape in recent years, it deserves closer exploration in contemporary literature. Jeff Chon goes to some very dark places with Hashtag Good Guy with a Gun (Sagging Meniscus Press, 2021), a complex novel bursting with plotlines, theories, social critique, and political commentary. Based on the Pizzagate incident that resulted in real violence, Chon weaves a convoluted tale of conspiracy theories and the damaged men who promote them.
Alice Stephens: Though your novel has several narrative threads, one of the protagonists—I would venture to say the main one, Scott Bonneville—is a twist on the trope of the bastard narrator, an unloved misfit who makes his plucky way through the world. Why did you choose to make Scott mixed-race, with a white father and an Asian mother, and raised by a woman to whom he is not biologically related?
Jeff Chon: I knew the protagonist had to be Korean because I’ve come to this point in my life where it’s hard for me to navigate characters unless I know they’re like me in some way. As a younger writer, my characters were either white or ethnically ambiguous, and that’s just not anything I’m interested in doing anymore because that was more work than it was worth. At the same time—and this is going to sound odd—Scott’s ridiculous worldview just seemed like something only crazy white people believed because I was only seeing crazy white people on the news believing this stuff. I’ve since learned QAnon-style wackiness isn’t limited to just one ethnicity, but at the time it made sense for him to have a white dad who passed along the propensity for these kinds of beliefs.
AS: Yeah, there was a Korean flag and a banner proclaiming Chinese American support at the January 6 insurrection. Set during the inseminating event of that insurrection, the 2016 election, Hashtag Good Guy with a Gun is about toxic masculinity, which you tie to the rise in conspiracy theories. Indeed, you concoct your own elaborate conspiracy theories regarding The Catcher in the Rye, “Gloomy Sunday,” and other cultural touchpoints. Was there a single inspiration for the novel—an aha! moment—or was it a lifetime in the making?
JC: I sincerely feel this is a book I was destined to write. I’ve always been fascinated with conspiracy theories and urban myths. I used to find them amusing when I was younger. I used to laugh at things like fluoride in the drinking water, Roswell, and the Illuminati because I saw the people who believed these things to be clowns with tinfoil hats. As I got older, it began to dawn on me that these people were a threat to society. Now that we’re living in what seems like a golden age for conspiracy theorists, it’s infuriating when I watch the news and see all the blood on their hands.
Because this is a book about “thwarted” men, the exploration of toxic masculinity happened rather organically. It seemed dishonest to write a book like this without exploring horrible manhood. In the embryonic stages of the manuscript, the Blake character was a garden-variety neo-Nazi. He didn’t become interesting until he morphed into a Men’s Rights incel. What fascinates me about these guys is they think they’re on the side of righteousness, yet also seem to have this strange self-awareness of what losers they are. There’s a real “Oh you think I’m a piece of shit? I’ll show you what a real piece of shit is!” quality to them, and I honestly believe it’s the self-loathing that causes them to lash out.
AS: As a resident of the Washington, DC, area, I well remember the Pizzagate shooting, which you reframe as the Pizza Galley shooting, with the shooter, Scott, encountering another gunman who’s stalking his wife, and killing him instead of the pedophiles he expected to find, thus becoming a hero to the gun-toting “good guys” of America. How close do you think we are to your scenario of vigilantes running roughshod over society?
JC: I look at George Zimmerman, politicians pushing January 6–style “Second Amendment Solutions,” and policemen with Punisher logos on their equipment as proof we’re already there and have been for quite some time. We have open-carry laws all over America, and it’s not like those guns are just a fashion accessory. Anyone who carries a gun around like that is looking for trouble in two ways. One is to simply antagonize the rest of us because our outrage is somehow amusing to them, and the other is because in the back of their minds, they’re going to have to shoot someone.
I can’t imagine anyone who walks into Target with a Glock tucked into the back of his cargo shorts hasn’t created scenarios where using that gun is justified. You have to live in a constant state of fear, which is pretty easy in this stupid world we’ve built for ourselves.
Kyle Rittenhouse, the racist who murdered Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha, is a prime example. You don’t drive to Wisconsin from Illinois with a semi-automatic rifle unless you intend on using it. I refuse to believe you bring a gun anywhere unless you’re okay with pulling the trigger. The only thing left is to twist your brain into justifying using it, and I think every single one of these people is at peace with using deadly force, and that’s a really scary thing.
AS: Yes, I see Kyle Rittenhouse in Blake Mesman, Scott’s ex-girlfriend’s son, an incel who finds a community with the Company of Men, a Proud Boys–type group, and a cog in the self-perpetuating cycle of senseless violence. Did you research these groups and the type of men they attract or is this something that most American males inherently know?
JC: As Blake morphed from neo-Nazi to incel, I did go online and read firsthand accounts of these guys and it was pretty gross, and made me not want to write the book at times. It’s one of those cases where researching wasn’t very fun. Then I realized this stuff is everywhere, so it didn’t really matter if I went to some incel account or some random gamer kid or some “Classical Liberal”—they all basically said the same thing and blamed the same people.
For the most part, I think these are things most American males either know inherently or through interactions with other men, and a lot of us don’t really think enough about how damaging our notions of masculinity are to all of us. We all know what it feels like to feel like something less than what we’re supposed to be. The people in my book are those of us who’ve given up in a lot of ways, the people who just stopped trying and gave into how easy it is to just lash out.
AS: It’s interesting that there is a character named Jeff, a wounded veteran with PTSD and one of the few male characters who could be considered a “good guy.” Could you comment on him?
JC: Oh, that guy.
I have a lot of affection for Jeff, who started out in a short story I’d written called “Jeff the Killer,” which is also the title of a well-known Creepypasta tale about a serial killer disfigured by bullies, and now the title of the chapter that introduces him in Hashtag Good Guy with a Gun. The story I’d written wasn’t very good, but I really liked him as a character and kept trying to make him a thing. He’s this Boo Radley-type, feared because of the scar on his face. Jeff the Killer’s also a Googleable meme, so the fact my Jeff was inspired by an online urban legend adds to the fun of him being a character in a novel that’s partly about being extremely online in terrifying ways.
I assure you the fact we share the same name is purely coincidental. If the meme had been Aaron the Killer, then my character’s name would’ve been Aaron. But I’m really happy he finally got the story he deserved.
AS: The narrative starts with a (manufactured?) folk tale of a coward who gives up his own sons to Jeoseung Saja, Korea’s grim reaper, rather than die himself. Though Scott is deracinated due to family circumstances, there is a separate storyline of two Korean American characters: Jae, a homeless alcoholic who sees the tortured souls, which he calls Occupants, of “normal” people; and Yu-jin, a new mother whose husband has just died in Afghanistan. How does their narrative connect to the story of Scott and Blake?
JC: Yes, the folk tale is completely manufactured. There is no record of Jeoseung Saja coming for a Korean general who hid from the Tang emperor. There was a time when the novel ended with the revelation this folk tale was inauthentic—all told from the point of view of Jae’s adult daughter—playing with the idea of the stories we like to tell ourselves, but I couldn’t make anything in that epilogue work, so it all very thankfully went away.
As with Jeff, I needed to populate the book with some characters I honestly liked. I do, in some way, care for Scott and Blake, but it would be a stretch to say I like them. Also, as with Jeff, Jae was a character in a short story I really like, and I enjoyed writing him so much I folded him into the novel because I didn’t want to the party to end.
I feel Jae and Yu-jin add a tenderness to the novel that would have been sorely lacking without them. It was also important to make them Korean Americans because I wanted to make sure there were characters who weren’t deracinated the way Scott was.
…Of course, now I love Yu-Jin so much she’ll most likely have a cameo in my next book.
As to how those two explicitly connect with Scott and Blake, and I know this sounds like a cop-out, I think I’d like to leave that up to the reader. For me, I simply like the idea of three Korean American lives intersecting in the midst of all of this death and horror.
AS: Two characters from fiction are prominently featured as examples of the stunting effects of toxic masculinity, Holden Caulfield of The Catcher in the Rye and Ignatius J. Reilly of A Confederacy of Dunces. Blake ultimately rejects one for the other. What does that choice say about Blake?
JC: Those two characters, Holden and Ignatius, are fascinating to me because they seem to represent two sides of the same coin. One is seen to be a bit more on the Byronic side of things, while the other is a little more flamboyant. Both are known for wearing hunting caps, both have odd notions of what it means to be a man, of how women should conduct themselves. They both have very strong opinions about the film industry. Both are characters in novels Twitter would call “red flag books,” meaning if you meet a guy and he has those books on his bookshelf, it’s time to cut bait. They’re both characters a lot of people think of when the question of toxic masculinity in fiction arises. Neither is a great role model for young men, yet have somehow become role models of young men. The intertextuality was a lot of fun to play with here. It was challenging to do this without sounding pedantic, but it’s entirely possible I failed at that anyway. But it was fun to include those books as things that existed in this little world.
What does it say about Blake? It could be a Pathos vs. Logos thing. Or perhaps it’s Innocence vs. Debauchery, the Romantic vs. the Baroque. It could simply be Blake prefers the color of one hunting cap over another. We could ask Blake, but who’d ever want to talk to that guy?
Alice Stephens is the author of the novel Famous Adopted People, editor of Bloom, a book reviewer, and columnist for the Washington Independent Review of Books.