Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Debt, Gunfighting, and Money as a Moral Imperative

 In the fall of 2011, I spent several days at a cabin in the woods. I spent part of that time reading Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber. 

Nearly a decade later, I'm still thinking about the book. 

What's jumping out at me today is Graeber's discussion around the "gambler" and the "financier." In a passage discussing the fate of the conquistadors, most of whom were heavily in debt, Graeber writes:

What’s more, that relationship, between the daring adventurer on the one hand, the gambler willing to take any sort of risk, and on the other, the careful financier, whose entire operations are organized around producing steady, mathematical, inexorable growth of income, lies at the very heart of what we now call “capitalism.” (Graeber, David. Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Melville House. Kindle Edition)  

What struck me was the way in which we often portray these two characters as good or evil, depending on our point of view— the "honest farmer" or "entrepreneur" whose dreams are crushed by the demands of cold-hearted bankers or financial backers. Or on the other side of the argument, the "practical person" who "cleans up the mess" behind a careless, incompetent, or dishonest "visionary." 

The reality, that Graeber points to, however, is that these two types need each other, and the cord that typically binds them is debt. The resources used to stake the gambler become a loan, the asset intended to produce the "steady income" needed by the financier. 

And by turning that initial stake into debt, it acquires a kind of moral imperative. As Graeber notes, the debates around the moral status of the Native Americans ultimately didn't matter. Exploiting the natives was the only feasible way to repay the conquerors' debts, so the native's lives and dignity were sacrificed to the imperative of repayment. I strongly suspect that in the service of that imperative, many colonists found themselves doing things they couldn't have imagined doing before they became debtors. 

This was all very much on my mind while I wrote Corporate Gunslinger. The engine that drives Kira into becoming a gunfighter is the debts she ran up acquiring an MFA. She took the chance because she believes in herself, believes in her talent, and she believes that if she does what she loves, the money will come.

When her adventure in acting fails financially, she tries to fix it by moving on to another—becoming a professional gunfighter for an insurance company. In this capacity, she becomes a gambler for even higher stakes, engaging in life-or-death duels with disgruntled customers. Like the conquistadors' exploitation of the americas, it's all happening in the name of paying her debts.  

One of the many questions I hope people ask themselves after reading Corporate Gunslinger is why we allow money to become a moral imperative that overrides so many others, and if we really think that's the best choice, as both people and a society. And if not, what are we going to do to change it?

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

"Corporate Gunslinger's" Cut Scenes: Kira's Breakup

 One disadvantage of the blistering pace required by thrillers is that there isn't time to linger over some details. In Corporate Gunslinger, I ultimately sacrificed a detailed portrayal of Kira's love life to maintain a rapid pace. However, I did explore this a bit in some early drafts. 

At one point, Kira had a boyfriend named Rabbie Baehrenwald, a young financier who was wealthy enough that he doesn't find Kira's debts intimidating. She views their relationship as a "tryout," and believes that if she can show she'll be a good partner, he'll marry her, solve her debt problem, and they'll spend their lives together. 

This dream comes crashing down when Rabbie "butt dials" Kira's number during a discussion with his friend, Mitch Roundtree. While talking with Mitch, Rabbie reveals that he has no interest in a long-term relationship with Kira—he's just stringing her along until she dies on the dueling field. 

After finding the conversation in her voice mail, Kira decides to greet Rabbie in his apartment when he returns from his business trip and hold a "full, frank, and honest exchange of views."  

The scene below describes their meeting.

Kira bent her knees and adjusted her grip on the pistol. She was about a foot to right of the door where Rabbie would enter the apartment. His most recent message said the driver had dropped him off at the building entrance. She responded with “Waiting for you.” Which was certainly true.

The tumblers on the security lock made a rolling noise. Kira brought herself fully upright and ready. The door swung open and Rabbie’s muscular form swept into the room, his voice full of wolfish delight. 

“Hey, babe. Ready for a little food and fun?” He set his suitcase down and turned, looking for her. 

She stepped behind him, kicked the door shut, and leveled her weapon. 

The smile vanished. “Wha—shit!”

Her firing position was nearly perfect--too far away for him to reach her, too close to miss.  She kept the gun level with his face. “Turn around!”

“Wait, Kira, whatever this is, I’m sure—“

“Turn. The fuck. Around. And don’t make me say it again.” 

Rabbie turned. 


“Kira, wait. Have you been drinking? Because if you have, then—“

“KNEEL, asshole.” 

Rabbie knelt. 

“Put your hands on your head.” 

Rabbie complied without comment. 

Keeping the gun trained on Rabbie with one hand, she released her handset from her belt with the other. She keyed the volume to full and played the voicemail. 

By the time the crucial section of the recording finished, both his voice and his body shook. 

“Listen, babe, I can explain. You know what an asshole Mitch can be sometimes, right? Well,” he turned to face her. 

“Turn around! Don’t you dare use those big brown eyes on me, you miserable piece of stinking shit.” 

Rabbie faced away from her with his hands on his head. “What are you going to do?”

“Oh, I’ve already done it. I logged on to your work account, and I sent this to your boss, all the senior partners in your firm—”

Rabbie started to stand. “You didn’t! You goddamn cunt! That’s my life you’re fucking with!” 

He came up off one knee and turned toward her, his face red and the veins on his neck bulging. 

“Ah, ah, ah…” Kira stowed her handset and waved the pistol to draw attention to it. “Remember who’s got the gun.” 

Rabbie’s nostrils flared, but he remained still, and only half-kneeling. 

“Turn around again.” 

Rabbie didn’t move. His eyes remained fixed on her. 

Kira took up a solid shooting stance. “You don’t want to surprise your girlfriend, be mistaken for a burglar and get yourself accidentally shot, do you? I’d be so broken up and guilty.” She narrowed her eyes and made her voice utterly cold. “You know I can play that, don’t you?” 

Rabbie turned away. “Fuck.”

“Well, no, that’s definitely not going to happen. We are over. Oh, and about finding another gunslinger? Trust me, that little voicemail of yours is going to go to every woman in every training class in any town you’re anywhere near. Got it?”

Rabbie nodded. 

Kira reached behind her, keyed his lock code into the door and opened it. 

“Oh, and one more thing? This is a stage pistol. So if you think you’re going to go to the police with an assault with a deadly weapon story, think again.” Rabbie started to stand. 

“But the one on my ankle is the real deal. Come at me in the hall, and you’re just another vengeful prick who got gunned down when he tried to attack his ex.” 

She stepped through the door and slammed it shut behind her. The loud click assured her it had locked from the inside. It would take Rabbie a few seconds to get to the door, a few more to realize it was locked, not just closed, and he would fumble with the door release for another few seconds. By the time he entered the hall, she would be down the fire stairs. 

And she would still be armed. 

Early readers liked this scene, coming away with equal parts of, "Oh, hell yes!!" and "Oh my god, that was SUCH a bad idea." However, in the end, Rabbie just didn't do enough for the story to justify his existence as a character, so he was cut.