No Brass, No Ammo by John Sheppard
Moonshine Cove Publishing, October 2014
240 pages – Amazon
“I remember my drill sergeant in basic training saying to us, ‘Only an idiot volunteers, and since this is the all-volunteer Army…’” —No Brass, No Ammo
One could say John Sheppard’s new novel is about being a soldier in the U.S. Army, and it is, just not the Army we know from most films and books, marching in-step, one-two-one-two, behind a shrieking drill sergeant. There are no physical training sequences or beach landings in No Brass, No Ammo. In fact, only a single shot is fired throughout the whole book, and it’s off-screen, relegated to the narrator’s haunted memory of his father.
Instead, what Sheppard has delivered, in his characteristically funny and piercing prose, is a novel about people watching life pass all too quickly, wondering how much control they really have over it. It’s the story of a military lifer, Segeant Hank Bean–enlisted since he was a teenager, terrified that he’ll share his father’s fate, and trying to hold on to the fleeting relationships he’s made.
Like Sheppard’s best work before it (read Small Town Punk—like, today, if possible), No Brass, No Ammo finds poignancy in the mundane. These soldiers spend most of their time on base, cleaning and doing office work, bullshitting and barbecuing and bowling, all of them trying to understand the impact enlistment has had upon their lives, unsure if it will ever really end. But somehow Sheppard also manages to make this novel part-noir-caper, part-post-Cold-War identity crisis, chock full of conspiracy plots and KGB agents.
Despite the punk music, the David Lynch movies, and the oversized dildos (I’ll let you guess which of those three things the plot actually hinges on at one point), the writing is understated. Sheppard’s characters pretend to not be funny, to not be emotional, to not need each other, when of course, they are, and they do. There’s a clarity to the chaos, the restraint, the vulnerability Sheppard creates, something so human and essential you can’t help but turn the page.
Hi John. I wanted to start by asking you about the Mark Twain epigraph from No Brass, No Ammo. “Sanity and happiness are an impossible combination.” The Mysterious Stranger was a novel Twain worked on towards the end of his life, at which point he’d outlived his wife and three of his four children, and knew a thing or two about unhappiness. This interested me because for many of your characters like Hank in No Brass, No Ammo, or Buzz in Small Town Punk, grief feels like a very real but hidden part of their lives. And yet these characters are often funny as hell. So in your own work, I’m wondering how much of a relationship you see between grief and humor. Or even sanity and humor. Or maybe the question is really, what makes humor necessary to your stories? Because it feels necessary, and often reveals itself in ways that can blindside your readers with poignancy.
The day after my sister’s husband was acquitted of her murder about 20 years ago, my father, a man who was neither intelligent nor funny, dropped by my apartment in Gainesville. I was in the MFA program at the University of Florida at the time. He asked what I was studying. “Creative writing,” I said.
“What do you write? Detective stories?”
“Humor,” I told him.
“But you’re not funny,” he said.
I used to try to write humor and then I stopped. Everything that can be thought of as humor in my books is merely there because that’s the way I see the world, and thus that’s the way my characters see the world. So am I protecting myself through humor? My ex-wife would say yes, because she felt that I always held something essential back, that I am unknowable, shielded by an endless stream of jokes. I think that I hold nothing back, and that’s why people laugh.
I was reading The Ghost Writer on a plane one time, seated on the aisle. I was heading back to Chicago from Florida after spending the holidays with my mother and brother. Maybe 15 years ago? The airline used Detroit as a hub. We landed, some more people boarded the plane, and then we promptly got snowed in on the tarmac. I think we were out there for four hours, stuck in our seats, not even allowed to get up and scoot around the plane. The woman seated next to me (it was a full flight) finally asked what I was reading. I showed her the cover and she practically shrieked, “He’s awful!” She went on to outline all of Philip Roth’s crimes against humanity. I listened for a while and then said, “He sure can write the hell out of a sentence though.” That ended the conversation. So I was stuck next to a woman who was fuming about me and about being stuck on the tarmac. After that encounter, I decided that I would not care about what potential readers thought of me. It made me a better writer, I think. Whatever appears on the page stays there as long as it’s honest.
Read the review of Small Town Punk in Razorcake. Google it. That guy fucking hates me. I love that review.
Yeah, that review’s ridiculous. The guy is judging lit solely based on whether or not he likes the main character. I’ve got some children’s books I can recommend to him. But then I also think it’s heartless not to care for Buzz [the main character of Small Town Punk, and a secondary character in No Brass, No Ammo] whom I found totally relatable, funny, harsh, despicable, and vulnerable in so many endearing ways.
I also wanted to ask about the structures of both Small Town Punk and No Brass, No Ammo. Many of the chapters would be successful on their own as short stories, while others are more clearly contextualized by the whole of the work. How much does this have to do with the way you plot your novels, and were you ever unsure what the stories would add up to be?
I wrote one good short story in my life. It’s called, “Milk Carton Girl Turns 40.” You can find it on the web somewhere. It was rejected by maybe a half-dozen magazines, many sending me personal rejection notes informing me that I am a horrible human being.
I’m a believer in doing things that I’m at least marginally good at. With Small Town Punk, I discovered that I could write a pretty good novel, or however you might classify Small Town Punk. It’s a novel of sorts, I suppose. Same with No Brass, No Ammo. I get sidetracked writing these things. I know there was a plot (it’s around here somewhere, scribbled on a sheet of notebook paper), but I get more interested in the people. So I let them talk, and I try to write it all down. They’re the people who are ignored: the lonely Army sergeant, the punk rock kid, the sly clerk in the bookstore.
I like books that thwart the idea of traditional structure. Jon Konrath writes books that defy labels of any sort—novel/short story, genre, whatever. His latest, Atmospheres, works as a book. But you can also pull out an individual paragraph from one of the “chapters” and it can work on its own. All of it is funny and cutting. I won’t even attempt to do what he does. I was at a reading with him one time in Boston and he absolutely killed.
You said before, whatever appears on the page stays there as long as it’s honest. I remember in O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story,” he wrote the honesty of a war story is more in the emotions than the facts. The grief, the paranoia, the awful ineffable awe. And while No Brass, No Ammo isn’t directly a war story, I’m wondering what were the emotions you were digging at to portray a lifer’s life. What gave your sentences that sense of honesty that made you leave them on the page?
My books start off with a question or two. I listen to music to get in the mood. Before I put any words to paper, I think about the questions, listen to music, for months. Once I sit down to write, it comes pouring out. A week or a month after I finish a manuscript, I’ll go back through it and cut. If I read a sentence and think, “That’s horseshit,” it goes, even if it’s a good sentence. I read a lot of factual things that are not honest—biographies, histories, the newspaper. The Talking Heads tell us: “Facts are simple and facts are straight. Facts are lazy and facts are late. Facts all come with points of view. Facts don’t do what I want them to. Facts are twisting the truth around. Facts are living turned inside out.”
What if I’d been a lifer? What would that have been like? In December 1996, I lost my job as an adjunct at a community college in Florida. That same day, I was offered a civil service job near Chicago, which I immediately accepted. The following day, an Army recruiter called me and asked if I was ready to re-up. “If you’d called me yesterday, I would have said yes,” I told him. And I would have. If you count my time in the Army reserves, I was in for over six years. There is something comforting about being in the Army. The Army has a field manual or regulations covering just about every aspect of existence. I still have problems picking out what shirt to put on in the morning. I still automatically wake up before sunrise. The Army strips away the decisions that you think make you free, freeing you up to think about the ones that do. So what does Bean think about in his quarters? It’s not what he’s going to wear or eat or do the next day, but books, life and death, music, love.
Lastly, just based on some of your character’s interests, I was wondering, do you happen to have a favorite 1) David Lynch movie, 2) punk rock band, and 3) pulp-crime novel?
1) Blue Velvet will always be my favorite Lynch movie. I remember seeing it in the theater. I sat mesmerized through the movie, through the credits. I sat while the staff cleaned the popcorn off the floor, and sat through the movie again. No one made me leave. I am overly excited by the prospect of a new season of Twin Peaks.
2) I have to listen to music while I’m writing. It’s very important for my process. I wrote a book a few years ago called Alpha Mike Foxtrot. In it, there is a pair of twins. One likes Henry Rollins, the other likes Morrissey. I’m almost finished editing another new book that will be published by Paragraph Line Books next year called After the Jump. It’s about a scientist who figures out how to transfer her adult mind into the brain of her seven-year-old self so she can go back in time to 1973 to save her doomed father (and the world). While writing that one, I listened to a lot of pop music from the late 1960’s/early 1970’s, and some of it was much better than I remembered. Favorite punk band: Dead Kennedys.
3) I’m going to take the opportunity to plug a new favorite pulp-crime book: Peckerwood by Jedidiah Ayres. You will not read a better, pulpier crime novel than Peckerwood.
Thank you so much, John.
I appreciate the opportunity to answer questions like this. So thank you.