Or does it?
These are immensely difficult questions, but each time we read about a terrible crime such as a mass homicide, we ask them anew: Was there something — anything — that anyone could have done to prevent it? Or was the culprit's act predestined by the brain's faulty wiring?
The effort to understand — instead of simply to condemn — a mass murderer is an admirable one, and it lies at the heart of David Vann's unusual but ultimately disappointing new book about the 2008 tragedy at Northern Illinois University, when a graduate student named Steve Kazmierczak walked into a classroom and opened fire, killing five people and wounding 18 before killing himself. In "Last Day on Earth: A Portrait of the NIU School Shooter" (University of Georgia Press), the author, expanding upon an article he wrote in 2008 for Esquire, embarks upon a diligent search for the key to Kazmierczak's bloody rampage.
If only Vann had been content with that quest. Instead of sticking to Kazmierczak's story, however, the author moves back and forth between his own history with firearms and the facts he unearths about Kazmierczak. The dreaded curse of first-person narration — the attempt to insert oneself in every story and use oneself as the measure of all things — is on vivid and exasperating display in "Last Day on Earth."
After hearing about the killing, Vann writes, "I wondered whether Steve might offer a view into why it is that sometimes the worst part of us wins out. Why had I not ended up hurting someone? How had I escaped, and why hadn't he?"
The reader yearns to respond, "Maybe because you're not criminally insane?"
Alternating chapters of sharp and methodical reporting about Kazmierczak's life with broodingly sentimental and self-indulgent accounts of his own upbringing, Vann repeatedly undermines the book's power and substance. Just as the author comes to some revelation in Kazmierczak's biography — his woeful home life, his constant and obviously inadequate interactions with a dedicated but overwhelmed social services system — he stops and switches gears, going back to his own life story.
In the autobiographical chapters, moreover, Vann makes outrageously offensive claims. "In fact," he writes, "the ultra right is about the primacy of the individual, and so in its purest form, it can't embrace religion, which is essentially against the individual. If religion weren't corrupt, it would be a force to the left in politics." Oh, really? So political conservatives aren't sincere in their spiritual beliefs? Vann's political views are crude and judgmental, and they don't belong in what purports to be a serious exploration of a troubled individual's path to deadly mayhem.
And he's still not finished. In the worst of his smears, Vann states, "As idiotic as it sounds, this is the real basis for the pro-gun lobby in America: right-wing libertarian paranoia that the federal government wants to enslave all its citizens and needs to take their guns away first before enacting the evil plan."
Vann apparently is unaware of the millions of Americans who own firearms legally and use them safely, and who — unlike Vann — enjoy hunting and target shooting. His generalization that the desire to protect gun rights arises solely from "paranoia" is ludicrous and unseemly.
The portions of "Last Day on Earth" that are not told by way of the diabolical "I" and that instead reflect Vann's sensitive reporting and deliberately understated storytelling style are superb. He quotes at length from Kazmierczak's intense emails to friends; he describes the drab physical environments in which Kazmierczak moved. Bit by bit, fact by fact, the author builds a picture of a mentally unstable man whose crushing loneliness was exacerbated by some bad breaks. We are made, as Miller said, but we are more than that, too; we're shaped by our individual brain chemistry — and perhaps by what happens to us, along the way.
"It turns out," Vann writes in the last chapter, "I really don't have that many similarities with Steve." So why put the reader through the wringer of first-person diatribes? Had Vann stuck with Kazmierczak's story instead of constantly interrupting it to tell his own, this would have been a much better book.
There is no final answer to the "Why?" of a tragedy such as the NIU shooting, but in the effort to get closer to some sort of comprehension, however ragged, however partial, lives a large part of our dignity and generosity as human beings. Vann means well. And when he gets out of his own way, his contribution is significant.
For an example of first-person narration artfully done, see Julia's review of "Hemingway's Boat" by Paul Hendrickson at chicagotribune.com/