At some point in the late 1960s, the esteemed novelist Philip Roth began to despair of the future of his craft. He wrote an essay recounting a bizarre true-life incident in which the extended families of a murderer and his victim not only became acquainted because of the crime but developed a chummy, even mundane and gossipy relationship that transcended it, going on TV game shows and taking vacations together. Roth suggested that — partly due to the effect of mass communications and partly because social evolution had simply taken a weird turn — truth had indeed become not only stranger but more compelling than fiction.
Then, a few years later, there was the celebrated episode of TV's All in the Family, in which America's favorite bigot, Archie Bunker, proclaimed that the obvious way to control airplane hijacking was to pass out firearms to all boarding passengers so they could take care of the problem themselves.
That which made for belly laughs in the 1970s has become the sober social reality of today. The members of the Tennessee General Assembly, who even now are in the throes of passing the most revolutionary gun-carry legislation imaginable, are the true heirs of Archie Bunker.
Sadly, Roth was correct. Truth is stranger than fiction. Life does imitate art. We are all characters now in a banal but awesomely threatening reality show. The Tennessee House of Representatives on Monday voted by the margin of 83-12 to concur in a Senate bill that would close the general public off from all access to state gun-permit records.
On the same day, a joint legislative committee reached agreement on a bill that would allow carry permit holders to pack their guns into restaurants that serve alcohol, with no curfew restrictions. The only saving grace is that the bill would allow proprietors of bars and other establishments to post signs forbidding the carrying of weapons inside. The saloon-keepers of the Old West had that privilege, too — and, if historical records and folk legends are accurate, had serious problems trying to keep the guns from blazing. The state's law-enforcement authorities and restaurant associations had both condemned the bill, but to no avail.
We started this editorial with a recollection from one literary master. We'll conclude with a dictum from another one. The great 19th-century Russian dramatist and short-story writer, Anton Chekhov, once proclaimed that if a gun appears on page one of a story, the logic of plot development requires that it go off by the end of that story.
The rapid escalation of gun crimes in our time leaves little doubt as to how the absurdist — and dangerous — narrative that our misguided solons have written us into will develop. And, though not without comic elements, it belongs to the genre of tragedy.
Governor Bredesen, we beseech you: Exercise the saving critical judgment that the state constitution gives you. Take out your blue pencil and strike through all this fantastic craziness with a veto.