The Shot by Anne Greenawalt

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


The Shot by Anne Greenawalt

The timing for Anne Greenawalt’s latest novel, The Shot (GreenMachine, 2021), a light speculative thriller, is spot on as it compellingly mirrors the realities of the current COVID pandemic’s political, health, and social concerns which no human being on this planet is unaffected by. Most of us never saw this coming. Strangely, Hollywood may have. How many films in the last decade have been about a virus that conquered the world? But in their scenarios, humans fought and persevered… and, in the end, humanity won. I think. But for us in the here and now, our story isn’t over. The script hasn’t been finished. When the vaccine was being developed, many of us counted the days until it was ready to be released and when it finally was in the U.S. many people decided not to get it and are still opting out. They have big concerns: Would it work? What are the long term effects? Is it safe? What about children…? What about them, indeed? People feared other things, too. Many of the conspiracy theories are based on government control from tracking devices attached to the vaccine that would infiltrate the human brain or DNA. Maybe both. And fertility concerns. Those seemed viable. Is the COVID vaccine safe for pregnant women? Would there be complications later when people wanted to start a family?

So when Anne Greenawalt’s review request appeared in my inbox with her cutting edge story, it gave me pause. I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it. As a reader, I’m a little bit of a scaredy-cat. I am a true lover of old-school horror and sci-fi but The Shot’s premise made me wonder. Seriously, I wasn’t actually afraid to read the novel even though Greenawalt’s story so closely mimicked the here and now that I did wonder if it would change my thinking about the pandemic. And if it did, how far away from what I consider my personal true north would my opinion-compass spin?

In the end, my curiosity won out. And I was very glad it did. Let me tell you about Anne’s novel:

It is a very compelling story. And I don’t use that word lightly. It’s a true page-turner. I had to stop and pace myself from plowing straight through it in a few readings. Greenawalt is adept at setting up this thriller. From the first few pages, I was all in. The setting was picture perfect for this type of story and also served to move the plot along. She thoughtfully introduces the main characters and subtly begins to weave the beginnings of the conflict using white noise from the media the characters read and think aloud about and also watch on TV. The characters are believable and likeable. The main protagonist, Sam, is a college English professor in a nameless college in a nameless city or town somewhere I believe to be in the U.S. And that is all the reader needs to know.

The novel also keenly uses government propaganda in the classroom on the first day of class as a teaching point to introduce the idea of writing with purpose for a particular audience but what is really cool is that it’s also a mechanism, a plot device, as it conveys to the reader the conflict illustrating the political space in which these characters exist:

The vaccination poster was one Sam hadn’t seen yet with Smokey the Bear pointing his finger: “Only YOU can prevent bio warfare.”

“Do you see that poster?” Sam asked.

Thirty or so necks craned to follow the path of Sam’s pointed finger where the poster, tacked with Scotch tape, hung beside the light switch. …

“What can you tell me about that poster?” (3)

Keeping with this idea, the posters were a classic method of “showing” the reader versus “telling” the reader and a useful foreshadowing tool, as well.

That said. Much is revealed in Sam’s college writing classroom and as the novel progresses with it a sense of dread that slowly—tick tick ticks—and masterfully begins to manifest as the political posters change form and frequency with their messages ramping up. Think Orwell’s 1984 meets early Nazi Germany. Meanwhile, rumors begin to circulate about the virus, the vaccination, and the people who have opted not to get it despite government pressure. Sounds a little familiar? However there are no vaccine lotteries in this reality. Democracy seems to be slowly fading into the shadows as a new government begins to rise with the newly-created Department of Family Services which issues parenthood licenses to those who meet their directives and more. While in the classroom Sam and her growing Scooby gang shine a bright light on conspiracy theories that may actually be true and, as the narrative picks up speed, they act on it.

Door bells ring at unexpected moments. People appear. People disappear. Many of the chapters end with suspense. All of it cranks up the tension. These moments are spread out in a linear plot that follows a collegial calendar, noting holidays, breaks, and final due dates, which I particularly appreciated because there was never a moment that I didn’t know where I was in my reading space and where and what my new friends were up to, as well. The Shot has a simple narrative structure that is as effective as it is elegant.

On that note, a quick aside: It seems lately that structure is the new play toy for writers. Constant flashback and revolving points of view sometimes make me dizzy and disoriented in my reading when over done. It affects what I have read and what I think I know about the story.

In Greenwalt’s novel, there is exceptional writing that I also noted as I read. Greenawalt takes her time rounding her characters with snappy, provocative dialogue combined with crisp detail that literally pans the room for the reader to see, hear, etc. while the characters move about with intent and ease. And I, the reader, am there, too. I can see everything happening as if I was a ghost in the pages.

A 19-year old who would normally be in a nonstop, stream-of-consciousness monologue with whoever would listen while also maybe teaching his classmates hip-hop dance moves, hadn’t spoken yet that morning, but his blue eyes were wide and alert as he looked from classmate to classmate. A grandmotherly woman originally from Sudan, sat with a pen poised at her composition book. A former high school shotput champion, and her best friend with the voice like Minnie Mouse also sat silently and tracked Sam’s every move. A young man who wrote his narrative essay about his sexual orientation but had an unexcused absence on the day of narrative presentations, kept poking the tip of his tongue into the piercing between his bottom lip and chin. Riley sat at one of the tables near the back of the room, and when she caught Sam’s eye, she gave her a coy half-smile. (43)

I also particularly enjoyed the small moments of humor that serve as respites between plot points. Two characters stood out in this regard. Maura, the colleague, and Riley, the student. They were real scene stealers. These small moments that sometimes have nothing really to do with the story have everything to do with the characters, making them fully-realized and believable. More human. The extra space on the page for small moments of humanity never distracts from the narrative. It enriches it. This is not a new notion. Both in print and in film, good writing is about character development and making connections to the reader.

The Shot progressed up the story arc and at the very top, just a few chapters to the end, it hovered rather excitedly. Much was revealed and spoiler alert: much was still left to write. The novel ended on an exciting note much like a Hollywood blockbuster cliffhanger that, although no mention was made of a Part 2, cracked the door open for a possible sequel.

*

Dr. Anne Greenawalt is a writer, competitive swimmer, trail adventurer, educator, and dog lover. She earned a doctorate in Adult Education from Penn State University and a master’s degree in Creative Writing: Prose from the University of East Anglia, and works as the training manager for a nonprofit that provides residential and clinical services for youths who have experienced trauma. She writes for WOW! Women on Writing, TrailSister.net, and StoryTerrace. Twitter: @Dr_Greenawalt

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Shelley Carpenter is TC’s Reviews Editor. Email: reviews[at]toasted-cheese.com

Jenny’s Apartment

Boots’s Pick
Anne Greenawalt


Living room
Photo Credit: Jeff Croft

Jenny’s apartment was a shrine to her ex-boyfriends, Jason decided when leaving her apartment after his fourth visit.

On his first visit, Jason noticed the paintings on the living room wall. They were the types of pictures that looked like splattered paint on a canvas, something his six-year-old niece could have done with her eyes shut. The term “vomiting rainbow” came to mind.

“Those are… colorful,” he said. He didn’t want to be rude.

“Aren’t they?” she said. “They brighten up the place. One of my exes was a painter.”

His name was Chad and she’d met him randomly at the grocery store where she liked to shop on Thursdays at midnight.

The second time at Jenny’s apartment, which was the first time they slept together, Jason noticed the set of hand weights on the floor of her closet where most women keep their shoes.

“So you lift weights?” he asked.

“Yeah, I do,” she said and shrugged. “I dated this guy for awhile—he was really into bodybuilding. He gave me those.” She winked at Jason and said, “It keeps me fit.”

Jason put his hands on her waist then snuck them up under her blue sweater. He felt her soft skin, which was just a thin layer over very tight abs. The bodybuilder, Dave, was her most recent ex, who, luckily for Jason, lived a few states to the west.

His third time at Jenny’s apartment, they cooked dinner together. Jason opened the bottle of wine while Jenny prepared a meal of roast duck, butternut squash loaf, and homemade bread. Her kitchen was filled with the sharpest set of knives, the best food processor, the most expensive blender.

“Where’d you learn to cook like this?”

“An ex,” she said. She flicked her hair behind her shoulder with a quick twist of her neck. The light from the kitchen lamp reflected off her hair and he could see, for the first time, flecks of red mixed with her soft chestnut-colored hair. “He was a chef. He got me hooked up with the latest appliances. Taught me how to use them, too.”

That was Chef Sherman.

On his fourth visit to Jenny’s apartment all they did was cuddle on her couch and watch TV. An ex-boyfriend had gotten her hooked on the show 24, so they watched that. Jason didn’t mind what they watched as long as he was near her.

“This couch is so comfortable,” Jason said. It was soft and molded to their bodies like memory foam.

“Yeah? I guess it is,” Jenny said. “Scott and I bought it together. He insisted that I keep it when we split up. So I guess I’m glad I did.”

Scott was her college boyfriend. He majored in business. They had an apartment together their senior year.

Jason wondered if there were any traces of ex-girlfriends lingering in his apartment. Other than a shoebox of photos on the top shelf of his closet, he couldn’t think of anything. Girlfriends had bought him clothes—sweater vests and ties and even a fleece jacket once—but those items were promptly donated or dumpstered when they broke up.

On Jason’s fifth visit, he got curious and pointed at random objects in Jenny’s apartment and asked about their history.

“What’s that?” he asked. “Where’s that from? How’d you get that?”

Jenny answered each question calmly. “That’s a tool chest Greg insisted I get in case I need it.” “Ralph got that for me when he went to Mexico.” “Barry got me that when we went to San Francisco a few years back. It’s from Chinatown. It’s a stamp with my name in Chinese.”

Jason stroked his beardless chin with thumb and forefinger. If he and Jenny broke up, he wondered what piece of him would linger in her apartment. What part of him would she keep with her? He’d treated her to dinners and movies. He even made her a handmade Valentine’s Day card a few weeks ago. But he had offered her nothing on the scale of Mexican maracas.

Despite five dates and seeing this girl naked, Jason realized he knew nothing about Jenny.

“What’s wrong?” Jenny asked. “You’re not jealous, are you?” She gave him a teasing grin.

“Me? Jealous?” Jason said.

She put her arms around his waist and squeezed. Her head fit perfectly on his shoulder. Her hair smelled faintly of vanilla.

“It’s just that I’m wondering… is there anything here that’s yours?”

Jenny lifted her head from his shoulder so she could look him in the eyes. She cocked her head to the side. “What do you mean? Everything here is mine.”

“Yeah, it’s yours because you own it. But what’s yours? What do you have here that you got for yourself because you like it?”

“I don’t know,” Jenny said. She looked genuinely startled. “I’ve never thought about it.”

“Ok,” Jason said. “I didn’t mean to upset you. I was just curious, that’s all.”

“I’m not upset,” Jenny said.

Sometime later, Jason didn’t know what number visit it was because he’d been to Jenny’s apartment so many times by then, Jenny pulled him by his hand into the lounge and said she had something to show him.

“Look!” she said and pointed to the corner where there was a snowboard standing on end.

It was odd to see a snowboard in the middle of summer in someone’s living room. It was red with a floral design like you’d expect to see on a surfboard. It was a top-of-the-line snowboard. He knew from experience and could tell by looking at it.

“Wow, that’s great!” Jason exclaimed.

“Yeah, well, I was thinking how you said I don’t have anything for myself. So I bought this for me.”

Jason felt his face slacken a bit, but Jenny was excited—and serious.

“But, Jenn, you don’t snowboard.”

“But I’d like to.”

“But I snowboard. That’s my thing.”

“I thought it could be something we do together.”

“Yeah, I mean, definitely, but the board isn’t really for you then, is it? It’s more like you got it for us.”

“But I’ll use it. It’s too small for you.”

A few weeks later Jason and Jenny broke up. Jason no longer wondered what he’d left behind in Jenny’s life—a snowboard, even though he hadn’t bought it. And unlike the chef and the bodybuilder and the others, he’d left before he had a chance to show her how to use it. He did wonder if she’d ever use it, if she’d become a master snowboarder, or if she’d just store it away in her closet as another item for her shrine.

Months later Jason found himself driving past Jenny’s apartment to get to his new girlfriend’s house a few blocks away. He saw Jenny coming out of her apartment as he passed. She was wearing a varsity letter jacket, the kind that football players in high school used to wear. The jacket was old, vintage. It had a large maroon M on the back and the word “Soccer” stitched in maroon on a grey background. Jason knew she’d never played soccer. She also wore grey shorts that showed off muscular legs hidden from the ankles down in brown work boots that were clearly too large.

The sunlight caught her hair right before she closed her apartment door. Jason slowed down to watch the sun reflect the many shades of her hair. He noticed there were no more flecks of red. “That’s a shame,” he thought.

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Anne Greenawalt graduated with an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. In 2008 she was runner-up in a short story collection competition, which resulted in the publication of her collection entitled Growing Up Girl. She now lives in her hometown in Pennsylvania. More information on Anne and her writing can be found at her blog. Email: greenawalt.a[at]gmail.com