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REVIEW: 'LAST DAY ON EARTH' - 12/22/2012 2:01 pm


By MIKE DUNHAM (originally published Oct. 23, 2011)

After winning multiple prizes in America and Europe for bleak, tense stories set in Alaska, David Vann has turned to non-Alaskana and non-fiction for his latest book, "Last Day on Earth: A Portrait of the NIU School Shooter" (University of Georgia Press).

It may be just a coincidence that the creepy book is having its national release so close to Halloween.

"Last Day" expands on reporting Vann originally did for Esquire magazine. It follows the ticking time bomb named Steve Kazmierczak from his troubled childhood to the day he walked into a lecture hall at Northern Illinois University and began firing guns. He murdered five students before killing himself.

Kazmierczak's bloody spree on Feb. 14, 2008, is minor compared to other massacres in recent history: 32 dead at Virginia Tech in 2007 (an event that inspired Kazmierczak); 13 dead at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009; 79 or more dead in Norway last July; or even the six killed in McCarthy, Alaska in 1983, a quarter of the town's population.

Attacks on schools by a single person are international in scope. The first ones took place in Canada (Manitoba, 1902) and Germany (Bremen, 1913). Fourteen were killed in Montreal in 1989, 11 in Finland in 2008, 13 in Brazil in April of this year.

And it's not just guns. China had a rash of stabbings of elementary students last year in which at least 28 children are reported to have died.

Vann acknowledges that mass violence by one screwball is not news. But, as a storyteller, he makes the buildup to the NIU massacre riveting by putting us inside the killer's squirming brain.

Page after page is filled with Kazmierczak's own emails, complete with foul language and emoticons. Each is crude and could be read as indicating that the author was pathologically disturbed.

But each, by itself, also is arguably innocuous, no more disturbing than many of the comments posted by anonymous parties at newspaper websites.

Cumulatively and with 20-20 hindsight, however, they supply the verbal equivalent of a CAT scan of the killer's thought process -- if "thought" is the right word. Kazmierczak splatters his bile in scattershot irrationality. He likes tattoos, guns, pot, mass murderers, Marilyn Manson, horror movies and sex that some might call kinky.

He loathes blacks, the weak, religious conservatives, social liberals and anyone who doesn't grasp the brilliance of his ideas. It makes for difficult reading, as does the unsettling subject.

The author himself states, "This story has been grueling, and I have no desire to investigate anything like it ever again."

Vann strives to make sense of the killer's rants by inserting hypotheses drawn from his own experience. He begins the book suggesting that, but for a high school theater class, he might have been another Kazmierczak.

Vann's books are always, in some sense, autobiographical. His previous non-fiction book, "A Mile Down, " was a memoir directly based on his own experience.

His acclaimed short story collection "Legend of a Suicide, " with key events near Ketchikan, sprang from his father's death from a self-inflicted gunshot in Fairbanks. His novel "Caribou Island, " set at Skilak Lake on the Kenai Peninsula, is based on a murder-suicide in his family.

Similarities between the NIU shooter and the author include their cold fascination with weapons and the manner in which Kazmierczak and Vann's father finally dispatched themselves.

But these connections are tenuous, insufficiently probed and tested, analogous but not identical.

Between interviews with the killer's acquaintances, timeline details and those long strings of emails, the reader is tossed observations that beg for backup. Kazmierczak's ideas are repeatedly characterized as "libertarian."

But linking the kind of helter-skelter chaos worship embraced by many or most mass killers with a general philosophical or political advocacy of individual choice is sort of like equating Wilsonian democracy with Pol Pot.

Some statements read like resolutions in search of an Oxford-style debate. "We should fear every American who has served in the military." "If religion weren't corrupt, it would be a force to the left in politics."

Whether these pop-up assertions are right or wrong, they distract the forward motion of the narrative -- even when inserted, twisted and retracted with the accuracy and speed of an assassin's switchblade.

As in Vann's fiction, there's no lack of searing, compact writing.

Take his critique of Nietzsche's "The Anti-Christ, " a book that Kazmierczak loved: "Nearly every sentence ... is an incitement to mass murder. It's the single ugliest book ever written. No morality, just kill, kill, kill."

Vann is less incisive in presenting a conclusion. He puts liberal gun laws in his crosshairs, but never quite pulls the trigger.

That could be because, reviewing the facts given in the book, weapons themselves are an inadequate explanation for what happened.

Kazmierczak came to the attention of the school system, police, mental health providers, the military and a college justice studies department brimming with budding criminologists and academic experts.

No one figured out how dangerous he was or did anything to stop him. Given how little the killer revealed of himself to associates, Vann says, there's no way they could have.

The bleak vision at the end of "Last Day on Earth" is as nihilistic as the creed of its central character: There are many more calculating, blood-lusting Steve Kazmierczaks out there -- and there is nothing authorities can do to protect you from them.

Some will say that's a good reason to carry a gun.

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.

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