Guns and Opioids Are the Next Frontier for the American Novel

A new book satirizes contemporary America with the tale of a struggling gun store that rebrands to fight opioid addiction. Its successful portrait of precarity and catastrophe contrasts with its sidestepping of gun stores’ inherently political nature.

A gun shop owner displays AR-15 rifles on September 29, 2016 at a store in Benson, Arizona. (John Moore / Getty Images)

The year is 2014 as Alex Sammartino’s debut novel Last Acts begins, and David Rizzo’s gun store is failing. Why? For one, Rizzo’s Firearms is stuck in a strip mall on the farthest outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona. To steer customers toward it, he uses landmarks such as a distinctive saguaro and a “splayed quail corpse.” Additionally, Rizzo, a white man pushing sixty, has not kept up with the times. He is fumbling and well-intentioned, a gun-selling Homer Simpson, and customers, when they come into the store at all, trust online reviews and message-board posts more than the schlubby charms of the man behind the counter.

Hope appears in the form of David’s adult son, Nick, with his skills in “SEO, SEM, CRM drips,” and other twenty-first-century dark arts. Together they hatch a plan to exploit Nick’s ongoing recovery from opioid addiction as part of a store rebranding. On camera, Nick describes his near-fatal heroin overdose before executing the company’s pivot to “shooting opioid addiction dead,” which includes a promise to donate a percentage of all sales to such causes. The video goes viral, and business booms. At the cash register, without fail, people tell the Rizzos stories of those they knew whose lives were changed — or ended — by excessive opioid use. “They wanted to do good,” the narrator says, of these people who saw the commercial and came to buy bullets, “but settled for what was better than nothing.”

This inciting incident deftly winds together so many threads comprising the present moment in the United States: continually radicalizing gun culture, the bleakness of the opioid epidemic, economic precarity, consumption as the center of politics, virality and online confession as necessities for success. With its roving narrator and a contingency-soaked plot cataloging ever-changing fortunes, Last Acts attempts to metabolize as much confusion and suffering in southwestern exurbia as it can. The novelist Dan Chaon, in a recent New York Times book review, wrote that Sammartino’s satire had “cracked the code” in writing about the contemporary United States. The ambition is stimulating — and the ways the novel falls short are worth analyzing.

One way Sammartino fills out his vision is in his readiness to pause the Rizzos’ story at a moment’s notice and focus on minor characters, whether for a sentence or two or for the length of a full chapter. Log-line summations of minor lives populate Arizona with drifting, forlorn people not unlike the Rizzos. A reader infers a US citizenry on the edge of total immiseration: “Marcus Lintel, the college football star, now a car washer on the weekends, got so high that he passed out on top of his newborn daughter.” Lintel is never mentioned outside this sentence, but there he is, one example of the variety of tragedy that inhabits America today.

Similarly, after the twin successes of Nick’s recovery and the viral boost to Rizzo’s Firearms, the plot zigzags from one type of catastrophe to the next, with barely a moment of respite for anyone. Even the local real estate magnate ends up at rock bottom twice. Jail sentences, relapses, poorly planned follow-up social media campaigns, a business partner who gives away his computer passwords, and falls from the roof are just some obstacles that derail father and son. The down-up-down-down-down of fortunes becomes grimly slapstick.

This omnivorous attention to the details and design of everyday US gloom makes more apparent what does not attract scrutiny in Last Acts. Much about the gun store, for instance, remains opaque. Rizzo’s Firearms is described as looking like any other retail outlet, except for the guns. The weapons fill David, whenever he enters, with “terror mixed with awe.”

Yet readers are not invited to feel such feelings in scenes where guns are used in developing action. Mostly, talk of guns and the moral, ethical, and political dimensions of selling them resides in the abstract. Only once is a gun drawn or displayed in a way that implies potential violence or intimidation: during a school shooting directly attributable to David’s negligence as a seller. Yet even then, Sammartino lets the reader know, after three paragraphs of description of the attack at Sunnyside High School, that “in a first for the short but prolific history of American school shootings,” no one is injured or killed. Soon the event is dubbed “the Mass Survival.” Later, more of “the Mass Survival” is constructed from a student’s point of view, showing Sammartino’s interest in the event’s psychological effects, physical harm or not, but the known outcome reduces the stakes. Another writer interested in many of Sammartino’s themes, Nico Walker, put guns into action frequently in Cherry, his novel of opioids, military life, and crime, and he gets satirical mileage from the shock of their sudden use in his newest short story, “Ricks & Hern.”

The is-it-absurd appellation of “the Mass Survival” sounds like something from a George Saunders story — and Saunders, who blurbed the novel and is thanked in the acknowledgments, was a teacher of Sammartino’s at the Syracuse University MFA program. Yet Saunders’s characters, when they are decent but stuck in satirically callous consumer hells, as the Rizzos arguably are, commit and abet great harm. Saunders, at his best, finds emotional and narrative ends by confronting this complicity head-on.

When David sells the .50-caliber assault rifle to the seventeen-year-old who attempts to kill his schoolmates, in contrast, it’s explained by the desperate need to make a sale. Nick’s response to the event does generate more action: he tries to make good by setting up a foundation providing therapy to those who have been part of mass shootings. Sammartino deftly mimics fundraise-ese in Nick’s emails, and the empty words — “receive a free DON’T SHOOT (GIVE!) bumper sticker by using the code generous1” — cruelly perform a poverty of imagination endemic to our national culture: the only way to solve a problem is to ask for money online. But “the Mass Survival” still seems like a missed opportunity, something recognizable as fiction because it pales in comparison to the macabre creativity of reality.

Elsewhere, Rizzo’s Firearms is denuded of much of its satirical resonance because of the Rizzos’ aloofness from the guns as carriers of political meaning. David sells guns to make money and keep his house — the mortgage of which he refinanced to afford the store in the first place. His strategy is to “stay amorphous” and focus on the sale. Nick, though more morally itchy from the enterprise, sees it as a way to help his father and as a routine to support his recovery. In real life, independent gun stores across the nation are sites of political onboarding and fellowship. When Nick says his father “has made it his mission to be the first gun shop in America that aims for a social good,” one might reply by pointing out that his customers already see the business as such.

Besides supplying the weapons themselves, gun stores provide conservative culture-building, as Arizona State University sociologist Jennifer Carlson observes in her recent Merchants of the Right: Gun Sellers and the Crisis of American Democracy, a study of independent gun sellers reacting to the pandemic and the George Floyd protests in 2020. “Politics appears as part of the ‘package deal’ of running a gun store,” Carlson writes of the owners she interviewed, the vast majority of whom identified as conservative — “something that gun sellers provide and gun buyers expect.”

Customers in Last Acts often demonstrate that expectation. They attempt to spark political conversations with David and Nick — one invites Nick to stay in his bunker when the civil war starts — but the protagonists give noncommittal responses as they swipe the credit cards. When a friend begins protesting outside the store, yelling “murderers!” and worse at anyone entering to buy a gun, David is distraught, but Nick soothes him by explaining that gun owners “want to have an enemy.” Why would David need his customers to be explained to him, after five years of running the business?

His reasons for opening the store five years before are hazily rendered, with little explanation for why he chose a gun store over another type of retail outlet. The motivation has something to do with a romantic attachment to a Ruger left for him by his uncle; despair brought on by his wife leaving him for his boss at Mesa Mitsubishi; and fear of continued humiliation as a low-level sales employee. The store is “his chance to be more than another guy whose life came up soul-crushingly short.” This is familiarly sympathetic. Nick’s struggles with drug addiction are likewise sensitively drawn.

The text’s bent toward sympathetic renderings of the Rizzos and their motivations makes it all the more intriguing that Sammartino devastates father and son with the contingencies of life, while refusing to fully connect David and Nick to the “terror mixed with awe” their store’s wares promise. Sympathy can be made, often quite easily, of difficult circumstances. But how, and in what form, could sympathy for these men survive their own straightforward ideological engagement with their business, and the confrontation with sudden death and injury that such commodities makes predictable? A satire that really speaks to the contemporary moment would have an interesting answer.