To realize, even delusively, that knowing a little implies knowing a lot because the one is related to the other is to me a great comfort. If, for example, we know one subject well, an understanding of other parallel subjects is implied. Knowing the history of a city says much about the development and decay revealed in larger topics. Knowing the history of a state teaches much about the analogous history of the nation. The part reveals the whole—it is the principle of synecdoche, and if you don’t believe me, then just ask Emily Dickinson.
Thus, the history of the world is shown in memorable, accessible topics, such as the history of sailing and ships, for example. And the history of civilization can be concretized in all kinds of imagery: houses of worship, foodstuffs, clothing, and so on. So a personal and particular interest can lead to a larger engagement and understanding. The development of technology, in modern times so familiar to us, speaks volumes about our lives in ways both obvious and subtle.
So the subject of Paul Barrett’s book is not one about which we should be at all presumptuous. His is not a treatment conceived for a particular audience—above all, it is not a book aimed at those devoted to “guns,” or at members of the National Rifle Association, or at Second Amendment absolutists, even though such people will be interested in, and even rewarded by, his volume. Oddly enough, this book is aimed at other groups, including those fuzzily inclined to be against guns. I think his book is aimed (nice word, that) at the general reader, at urban and suburban liberals, and, even more, at people looking for a good read, which means those looking for dramatized information and analysis that yields irony and even paradox.
The ostensible subject is of limited interest, but Barrett’s treatment of the Glock pistol is of the broadest interest. Despite the technical details, which have partly to do with the faults of the Glock itself in its varying incarnations, Mr. Barrett doesn’t really care about the gun. What he is interested in is everything else: its invention, its inventor, its propagation, its migration across the seas, its adoption, its public relations, its success, its faults and consequent legal entanglements, its corporate life, its place in popular culture—its effects and reverberations altogether. And that is as it should be. Yet this lack of obsession has a peculiar result: There is not one photo of a Glock in Glock. Is this a product of the publisher’s parsimony that led also to the use of an inferior paper stock? Perhaps so, but it is strange to have no image of the subject, except a severely cropped photo on the dust jacket. Barrett acknowledges the physical ugliness of the Glock 17 repeatedly, but he literally doesn’t show it.
What he does show is an America that got blown away by the competition, even as, notoriously, American policemen got blown away in confrontations in which they were outgunned. The old Smith & Wesson .38 revolver didn’t cut the mustard, going up against the latest technology. The most famous American firearms and manufacturers lost their places as Glock Inc. took over the business of providing weapons for law enforcement. Gaston Glock became a billionaire from the profits derived from millions of guns, including “Baby Glocks” for the ladies.
One of the most appealing aspects of Barrett’s book is its humor and irony. Again and again, Glock is lucky, in the right place at the right time. Again and again, the left-wing politicians have it wrong, and every time they try to suppress gun sales, they only provoke their rise. Glocks are reputed to be the favorites of bad guys! Wrong. Bruce Willis rants about Glocks in Die Hard 2, and he is wrong. Moreover, the book is filled with memorable and colorful characters who rise and fall with the corporate Glock, as well as others I would prefer not to contemplate, such as Bill Clinton, Rahm Emanuel, and Andrew Cuomo. The ones we remember are those who worked for Glock in America and promoted the product and its placement. Following them produces novelistic satisfactions. The oddest effect is the story or stories of the eccentric Austrian inventor, Gaston Glock, himself. The man is opaque, even dull. The only way that Barrett brings him to life is through salacious anecdotes, which don’t function particularly well. Other salacious accounts of businessmen getting drunk and serviced at a VIP lounge work better, even without Eldrick Woods.
To me, the most notable aspect of Glock is not what it says about a weapon or the man who invented it, but what it says about America. Paul Barrett has made it clear that guns are here to stay because they are as deeply embedded in the American story as are the frontiersmen, the Minutemen, the soldiers, the hunters, and the Constitution. When he does this, he is not preaching to the obvious choir, but to disaffected liberals and others who don’t think much about guns except in terms of politically correct sentiments.
Just as remarkably, Barrett has made it clear that the derailment of American industry is America’s fault. The days when Americans led in invention, in entrepreneurship, and in craftsmanship, in the weapons industry as in others, are gone. Yet that does not necessarily mean that the future is foreclosed to her. Great names such as Colt, Winchester, Remington, and Smith & Wesson are not what they were. Neither are Grumman and Pan Am and TWA. Just about every American knows something about what happened to the automobile industry, and there are many who prefer Mercedes-Benzes to Cadillacs. Glock clocked the American manufacturers, and the result is quite a story, even a lesson. As for me, if I were interested in acquiring a handgun (and I’m not), I would choose it for its looks and power of emotional suggestion—its historic overtones. Me no Glockee.
If Mr. Barrett has written a serious book about a semiautomatic pistol, the ironic treatment is yet one that is highly revealing about technology, entrepreneurship, capitalism, economics, crime, sociology, corruption, inanity, international trade, law enforcement, politics, personal idiosyncrasy, and VIP lounges. Paul Barrett has not only written a readable book for people who like to read, he has provided a public service by correcting and even rebuking misinformation, misunderstanding, stereotypes, and clichés. In his hands, a narrow focus receives such a broad treatment that people who don’t care about Glocks will care about Glock.
[Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun, by Paul M. Barrett (New York: Crown Publishers) 291 pp.; $26.00]