⇒Violence is very difficult to write in works of fiction (so is sex, but that’s another story).
Violence is complicated, a rush of disparate sensory details that somehow coalesce into a scene or moment that is sublime or numb or terrifying or a combination of these things. In the hands of a skilled writer, moments of violence are somehow more powerful than the sum of their parts. One thing violence is not, many of us probably assume, is subtle.
Yet Paul Luikart’s “The Sniper” is very subtle indeed. There is a violent encounter at the center of this story: an Allied sniper is attempting to kill a Nazi soldier in war-torn France, an encounter witnessed by a young girl hiding nearby. Yet this encounter is rendered with very precise, tiny brushstrokes: the coldness of the rifle in the sniper’s hands, the little plume of blood when the soldier’s comrade is killed, the puffs of stone and dust that appear with each subsequent rifle shot, the German’s helmet, an upturned sofa, and so on. Everything fits together perfectly–every sound and gesture and glimpse of the wasted landscape. The story’s chaos is condensed into a few minutes, a few carefully selected details, yet the narrative moves forward in something resembling slow motion. Sometimes, a traumatic moment is best when sped up, but in this case, the trauma–a soldier’s imminent demise–is slowed down, which is very effective.
The pacing of this piece is superb, and so is its handling of POV, a close-third-person that floats from one character to the next without so much as a double space break to signal a shift. Again, it’s very smooth, very subtle. Because of the author’s POV strategy, there is no real antagonist in this piece–not the American, not the German–except for maybe the circumstances and opposing roles that brought them to this predicament. Without spoiling too much, I will say that the final moments of this brief story, when we enter the mind of a young witness, are truly fascinating–transcendent even. The story ends in a way that is weirdly hopeful, despite its bleak subject matter and presumed outcome.
“The Sniper” reminds me of that classic short story by Tobias Wolff, “Bullet in the Brain,” which bears some similarities in terms of its slow-mo pacing, psychology, and emotional crescendo. (Go read everything Tobias Wolff has ever written, but before you do, check out this great WWII-era piece in WhiskeyPaper.)