“The Hammerhead Chronicles” by Scott Gould

To start, The Hammerhead Chronicles by Scott Gould isn’t about sharks and based on the number of social media posts coming from Gould reiterating this statement, some others went there too. Also, the world is divided into two groups—cyclists and non-cyclists. Cyclists even have their own secret language which includes hammerheads…that are not sharks. Apologies for the tongue-and-cheek comments, but the novel is so very tongue and cheek; hopefully, the author will not mind. It’s a very funny book. In a moment in time when writers live in fear of being offensive to the extent of self-censorship, Gould gives hope for the humorist writer.

Set in a small Southern town in South Carolina, The Hammerhead Chronicles is about perspective. Everyone has an opinion, an agenda, different political and religious beliefs, sexual orientation, likes, dislikes, desires, and so forth, and somehow, they must live together without killing one another. This story is about presenting unique positions and addressing stereotypes.  Gould accomplishes this goal by exploring point-of-view and creating compelling narratives Also, the pacing is excellent. Gould builds to an epic ending, creating the perfect storm where the characters’ narrow worlds uproariously collide and force them to confront their prejudices and fears.

The main character, Claude, is a newly divorced, depressed English professor—aren’t they all? He has the absolute worst sense of timing. He leaves his soon-to-be ex-wife, Peg, about the time she discovers she is dying of cancer. The townies regard him as the guy who left his wife when she was at her lowest. To make matters worse, he does what most men do when facing a mid-life crisis and feel they need to prove their masculinity one more time: they buy something ridiculously expensive. That something turns out to be a pricey racing bike and the spandex ensemble that goes along with it. If the townsfolk were not whispering about him before, they sure as hell are when they watch Claude struggling up hills in too-tight biker shorts pursuing a woman biker who outpaces him in every way.

The bike is a perfect metaphor for someone like Claude who is always looking for metaphors; it represents his journey towards total self-destruction. Estranged from his daughter Marlene, and essentially newly widowed—Claude and Peg remained friends up until she dies—he spends most of his time pounding PBR and Jim Beam at the local dive bar, The Oorah. It will take something big to get him out of his rut. Enter, foreign speed bike. Everyone loves an underdog, though. For example, Claude worries over the functionality of his male anatomy:

“You wonder, as you pedal up a slight slope, if the pills advertised on television, where the good-looking man can’t get it up until the woman smiles at him and reminds him that a prescription bottle with both their names on it sits in the medicine cabinet, will help you, in this case. Do doctors prescribe Viagra for Cycle Dick Dysfunction? Is CDD a thing or did you make it up?”

It could be that Gould’s writing Claude from a second-person point-of-view makes him sympathetic to the reader. It literally feels like you are making all these poor judgment calls along with him. Poor Claude needs a little push. The push happens at Peg’s memorial and the scene is so absurd you love him even more. Applause to Gould for creating a close, second-person protagonist and making it work. It is uncommon and brilliantly done.

Gould did not stop his grand experiment in point-of-view and voice with just second-person point-of-view. Wallace and Wade are written in first person plural. They are two white, gay brothers who make more money selling Confederate memorable and sex toys in a “secret” room hidden in their bookstore. People often identify identical twins as one person; they look alike, they must think alike. Plural first-person is perfectly matched with their ideology, mostly based on fear and ignorance. Being twins perpetuates their racism because they have a permanent buddy who never questions whether preserving a hate-filled heritage is wrong. Yet, even when they justify selling their racist wares, they are aware it is not for all their clientele. Deep down they know they are wrong:

“Basically, we wanted to segregate our customer base…The woman who rushes to grab the latest Jodi Picoult novel is rarely in the market for a Rabbit Vibrator emblazoned with Robert E. Lee’s profile.”

Luckily, Wallace and Wade do become separated for a short spell. Gould cleverly gives them a new heritage to reflect upon and finally they deserve a separate chapter with their individual voices.

This book guarantees a lot of laughs, but one of the most hilarious characters is the bartender of The Oorah, LeJeune. LeJeune, as the name suggests, grew up with a Marine for a father. Though small in stature, she does not take anything off anyone. Gould wrote her character in a pseudo-stream-of-consciousness style in first-person. LeJeune’s headspace is a fun place to hang out in as she muses over the lives of her outcast clientele based on their drink of choice:

Guy hunkered down in the corner, dirty Carolina Panther’s t-shirt? Jack and Diet. Old looking man but probably not as old as I thought slumped at the end of the bar in a suit that had never fit? Vodka and ginger ale. (Asked for a lime. Limes here? Seriously, dude?) Pair of dusty construction workers in thick, brown boots—started early because the city shut down their project because they didn’t have permits for plumbing and electric? Pyramid of empty Coors light cans they started stacking late morning. Only thing they built today. Skinny woman, about ninety pounds smelling like a mixture of hell, maybe curry and White Shoulders and meth? Tall boy Buds with Old Crow chaser. Took her credit card early.

Perhaps, this prose is not classically stream-of-consciousness, yet when one considers what Gould did with Claude’s point-of-view, it should be noted that Gould does not seem to care about playing by the rules. In fact, the entire novel challenges what is normative in literature. Maybe what is most relevant is that there are writers willing to test the literary waters. It never feels as if LeJeune is speaking to the reader, but that the reader is privy to her subconscious. Also, like the phrase in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway— “Big Ben struck the half-hour”— Gould employed a repetitive phrase—“Suck it up, buttercup.” The repetition both grounds the reader and presents LeJeune’s motto in life. Or is this direct interior monologue? LeJeune candidly accesses her environment—images, sensations, impressions— with some mental leaps occurring as a result of these elements coming at her. The prose is less convoluted than classical SOC and there is some order to her thoughts.  Regardless of the argument over LeJeune’s character being written in pure SOC, some experimental form of SOC, or interior monologue—the prose instantly transports the reader into the grittiest parts of her mind. It softens up her otherwise harsh exterior and sour attitude and creates a more empathic character who underneath it all has a good heart.

The Hammerhead Chronicles is an absolute delight to read and is proof positive that some people still like to laugh. In addition to the sampling of nutty characters mentioned previously, there is also Claude’s best friend Samuel, a mathematician by day and vermin superhero at night. There’s his bitter, know-it-all sister-in-law Cheryl, along with her cheating husband Patrick; Claude’s rebellious daughter Marlene, who is dating the “head” of local white supremist group;

And then, there’s Peg, a dead character. Even though she dies early on, she never truly leaves the book. She resides in a different plane of existence, a state of limbo where she cannot interfere with the plot but may observe and dispense wisdom about life. There is a metafictional element going on with Peg. At one point she compares the characters in the book to characters in sex farces she read in in college or episodes of Frazier “when people just missed out on finding the boyfriend or girlfriend or mistress hiding in the pantry or sneaking up the stairs.” But then she states, “I’m mixing up genres.” Peg views the scenes her friends and family are currently living through as a play where “…at some point all the characters have a stake in the outcome of the plot and end up uncomfortably in the same room.” She even comments on her own character’s role, cursed by “limited omniscience,” stating she “can’t do a damn thing,” and she “can only witness.” Peg reminds the reader who the real mastermind behind this story is—the author himself.

With its short punchy chapters—sometimes only a page in length, with even a one-sentence chapter—outrageous characters, and hyperbolic scenes, this is the book you buy for people who claim they hate to read (not for the kiddies, though). This novel would also make for an excellent study for English professors who are looking for a book in order to teach different literary techniques and perspectives, while also being highly entertaining. It is impossible not to enjoy it! And yet, even though The Hammerhead Chronicles is a quick and fun read, at its core Gould touches on big themes— death, grief, homophobia, racism, marriage and family, loneliness. At the end of the day, it is great satirical writing.

Scott Gould is the author of the memoir Things That Crash, Things That Fly, the novels, Whereabouts and The Hammerhead Chronicles, as well as the story collection, Strangers to Temptation. He is a multiple winner of the S.C. Arts Commission Individual Artist Fellowship in Prose and a recipient of the S.C. Academy of Authors Fiction Fellowship. Other honors include a 2022 Memoir Prize for Books, an Independent Press Award, an IPPY Award for Southern Fiction and the Larry Brown Short Story Award. His work has appeared in Kenyon Review, Black Warrior Review, New Madrid Journal, New Ohio Review, Crazyhorse, Pithead Chapel, BULL, Garden & Gun, New Stories from the South, and others. He lives in Sans Souci, South Carolina.


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