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How to Be Safe


How to Be Safe

The prologue of Tom McAllister’s new novel, HOW TO BE SAFE, was originally a short story. But actually it could have started its life as a response to any of the school shootings and other acts of violence that seem to permeate our lives on a daily basis. And that’s kind of the point, really, since the rest of McAllister’s alternately poignant and angry narrative points out, time and time again, the sickening pervasiveness of violence in our culture and the absurdity of our reactions to it.

In HOW TO BE SAFE, the latest school shooting (at least until the following day) takes place in the small town of Seldom Falls, Pennsylvania, once known as “America’s Friendliest City.” It’s the kind of small town where people reside, at least in part, to reassure themselves that they are, indeed, among friends and that they are, most importantly, safe. But that illusion is shattered, as it’s been so many times elsewhere, when a teenager enters his own high school and kills more than a dozen people.

"HOW TO BE SAFE...leaves readers with much to ponder about our culture’s relationship to violence, tragedy and trauma."

The narrator, Anna Crawford, had once been a student in that high school and was, until recently, a teacher there as well (though how good of a teacher is a question readers will come to ask themselves as her narrative unfolds). Having recently been suspended (or possibly fired) from the school, Anna immediately rises to the top of the suspect list in the confusing minutes and hours following the shooting. And, like countless people before her, even after her name is cleared, she continues to be the recipient of vitriol online and suspicion in real life for weeks and months after the incident.

Anna, perhaps like the “lone wolf” shooters she repeatedly considers, is somewhat of a loner. Estranged from her half-brother, a recovering addict who seems to be making a fresh start for himself with his young family in a nearby town, she is increasingly haunted by scenes from their troubled childhood and adolescence, surrounded by an atmosphere of neglect and despair.

Paralyzed with grief and fear after the shooting, Anna finds herself --- along with her neighbors --- struggling to know how to respond. She recognizes the absurdity of the church groups and militias and romances and neighborhood watches that crop up in the wake of tragedy, but she also feels compelled to try (and repeatedly fails) to find her own way forward, her own place in this seemingly unrecognizable community.

Anna’s own bad-temperedness, lack of self-awareness and general misanthropy all lend humor to what otherwise could (rightly) be a pretty dour narrative. But underneath her prickly exterior and at times surreal outlook lie moments of real insight, sometimes heartbreaking nuggets of truth about how violence --- and the perceived threat of violence --- is tangled up with our culture’s views on gender, race, sex, power, and on and on.

Near the end of the novel, as the first anniversary of the shooting approaches, Anna becomes increasingly incensed by the prospect of the memorial commissioned for the site of the event: “Given enough time and enough tragedies,” she notes, “we will eventually run out of places for new memorials. Every square inch of the planet will be covered by plaques commemorating a war or a shooting or a building collapse or a massive fire. We will be reminded of the inevitability of tragedy, but when you try to make it impossible to forget, then there is no point in remembering.”

HOW TO BE SAFE continually points out paradoxes like this one --- how memorials both valorize and trivialize the events and people they’re meant to honor --- and leaves readers with much to ponder about our culture’s relationship to violence, tragedy and trauma.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on April 6, 2018

How to Be Safe
by Tom McAllister

  • Publication Date: April 3, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Liveright
  • ISBN-10: 1631494139
  • ISBN-13: 9781631494130