Today I woke to the all-too-familiar tragic news of yet another mass shooting. Sadly, we all know what will happen next: politicians will sputter, talking heads will bloviate, and the next thing that gets done about gun control will be – absolutely nothing.
Such is the subject of Ben East’s hard-edged new novel, Patchworks. The narrator, Gabriel “Gabe” Dunne, is a Washington, D.C. intern, stuck in a rather unglamorous position. Overly awed by his soon-to-be-married supervisor Chloe’s magnificent breasts, and sufferer of unrequited lust for a local divorcee named Darlene, Gabe is something of an enigma.
Interestingly, Gabe’s fellow characters often think of the archangel when they hear his name, though the messenger of God called Gabriel is traditionally a female angel. On the surface, Gabe seems to be the closest thing D.C. has to a Boy Scout. But his private thoughts, conveyed only to the reader, reveal him as a reluctant admirer of the casual playboy in the office, a rakish troglodyte with the oddly bookish name of Harcourt. Gabe describes Harcourt, perhaps ironically, as a born winner who “deserved to win.”
So is Gabe something of an angel, as his co-workers seem to see him? Or is he just another self-deluded do-gooder, a prototypical unreliable narrator with a powerful lust for heavy-bosomed women…women like Chloe, whom he sees as a “blonde sweetheart posing as professional?”
Unfortunately, there’s the rub: Gabriel goes on an admirable, utterly quixotic campaign against the NRA, but even that feeble attempt to break free from the shackles of the government “cube farm” seems motivated less by an angelic nature than by the tragic deaths of a colleague’s children in a school shooting. In other words, like Nancy Reagan with stem cell research or Dick Cheney with gay rights, it seems that Gabe becomes truly interested in a major issue like gun control only after it affects him personally.
The characters in Patchworks are almost universally conflicted, and although most of their conflicts are held at arm’s length from the reader – conveyed second-hand by the righteous Gabe – author East does a fine job of making them sympathetic. At worst, a few of them are ciphers; at best, the kind of characters one feels are true, but just as gloriously unknowable as our own friends and colleagues.
In that sense, Patchworks is something of a patchwork itself, like the shirt cobbled together by a school shooting victim’s father: admirably cobbling together the disparate stories of a motley bunch, connected through circumstance and the perhaps-unreliable point of view of an enigmatic narrator. Though it left me with mixed emotions, I can’t help but recommend it for these bleak times.
For more on East and his work, check out https://beneastbooks.com.