In fewer than 200 pages — 190, to be exact — novelist James Warner manages to explore the full range of the American sociopolitical spectrum with verve and wit. The novel centers on the unlikely relationship between Cal Lyte, a right-leaning, gun-toting venture capitalist, and Reid Seyton, Cal’s left-leaning, bookish not-quite son-in-law. Faced with academia’s version of corporate downsizing, Reid agrees to do some snooping in order to dig up “something fresh” on Cal’s ex-wife, Tabytha. That Tabytha’s political aspirations and inclinations make her a dead-ringer for Sarah Palin while Cal’s ongoing tryst with a Lacanian psychoanalyst wreaks havoc with his own moral compass only adds to the fun.
Throughout the novel, Warner’s gift for creating strong characters is clear. Among the strongest is Cal, who comes across as a slightly eccentric amalgam of Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe’s Charles “Cap’m” Croker of A Man in Full.
Additionally, Warner does a wonderful job of sending up ivory tower academia. Reid’s dissertation adviser, for example, is described as “a Kansan who’d spent half his career analyzing the continuity errors in Casablanca.” Narrating this portion of the novel, Reid goes on to explain, “E.g., when Bogart reads a note from Bergman at a train station, his coat is wet, but when he gets on the train, his coat is suddenly dry again. In Troy’s reading, the super-absorptiveness of Bogart’s coat parallels Bogart’s own rapid intake of Bergman’s message, while also reflecting how quickly popular culture soaks up postmodernism.”
In many ways, one is tempted to read the continuity errors of Her Father’s Guns — few though they are — in a similar light. E.g., when Reid has lunch with Cal, he orders fish and chips because at $19.99, he reports, it’s the cheapest entree on the menu, but on the following page Cal’s daughter orders an entree that’s $17.50. Here, Reid’s mistaken belief that his $19.99 meal is “the cheapest” when a cheaper alternative clearly exists parallels the tendency of his own ethics become skewed under Cal’s influence, while also reflecting how quickly popular culture forgets its “values” when money comes into play.
Though this reading may be a slight stretch, it actually lines up with a lot of the novel’s themes. Indeed, the real dynamism behind this novel is Warner’s uncanny ability to allow his characters to evolve over time — to allow their values and perspectives to change as the world around them offers its various motivational incentives, greed and lust being high on the list.
All told, All Her Father’s Guns is a satire par excellence that combines the zaniness of a Terry Southern novel with the critical astuteness of White Noise-era Don DeLillo.