David Vann is a former Guggenheim fellow, Wallace Stegner fellow, John L’Heureux fellow, and NEA fellow who has written two internationally selling and prize-winning books, Legend of a Suicide (2008) and Caribou Island (2011). Vann received the AWP Nonfiction Prize for Last Day On Earth: A Portrait of the NIU School Shooter (2011), and has two forthcoming books: a novel Goat Mountain coming out this September, and Crocodile: Memoirs from a Mexican Drug-Running Port (2014 in Spanish). Vann is currently a professor at University of Warwick in England.
Review of Last Day On Earth: A Portrait of the NIU Shooter
by Scott Donahue
The title of David Vann’s book echoes the Marilyn Manson song, “Last Day On Earth,” the last song Steven Kazmierczak would ever listen to before opening fire at a Northern Illinois University auditorium, killing five and wounding eighteen. But Vann’s book is not so much about Kazmierczak’s “last day” as it is about the days, weeks—years, really, of psychosis, torment and treatment—leading up to the massacre that occurred in 2008, Valentine’s Day. Part memoir, part character study, and part exercise in sympathy for the devil, Last Day On Earth takes us (whether we want to or not) into the dark recesses of the NIU shooter’s bitter and tortured life. But Vann’s book makes no apologies or attempts to explain how or why this tragedy happened, the way school shootings across the country happen over and over, ad infinitum. Rather, Vann labors to answer an often overlooked question, who. As in, who was Steven Kazmierczak before he became the infamous NIU shooter?
In answering this question of who, Vann undergoes a search and recovery of Kazmierczak’s life story. But to prepare us for a harrowing glance into the mind of a gunman, Vann first takes us into his own world. Vann devotes roughly half the book narrating two parallel journeys, braiding glimpses of personal narrative with that of Kazmierczak’s story. Vann begins the book with his large inheritance of guns—guns from his father, whom committed suicide. Vann also describes how, as a 10-year-old, he would often sneak out at 2 AM with his father’s bequeathed rifle, post up on a hillside, and take aim on unsuspecting neighbors, finger resting on the trigger, peering through scope.
This is the manner through which Vann writes his book: through the scope of a shooter. The narrator is highly empathetic to Kazmierczak, even referring to him by his first name, “Steve.” This intimacy serves the purpose of humanizing a man deemed as a monster. But Vann’s empathy also suggests an injustice has been done to the NIU shooter’s memory. Vann cites, for example, Kazmierczak’s memorial being vandalized, a Columbine T-shirt draped over a cross; or students commemorating the dead by wearing a bracelet with five beads instead of six.
Vann writes creative nonfiction not only to compare himself (quite bravely) to a social pariah, but also to set himself apart from the rest of the journalism world, and all of its dehumanizing objectivity. His book compensates for what he terms as “invasive, insensitive, and sloppy” news reporting: the 48-hour news channels that treat the shooter as both pariah and celebrity, spawning copycats time and time again.
Time and time again. These shootings have become quotidian. In this series of events; there’s a horrific shooting, followed by a candlelight vigil, followed by an address from the president, followed by a televised memorial service, shouting matches over social media, and chicken-or-egg arguments equipped with asinine logic (“Guns don’t kill people,” etc.).
Yet rather than try to explain what caused his subject to plan and carry out the slaughter, Vann instead illustrates for us the person: a grad student, sociology scholar and A student. He plays violent video games, watches SAW religiously, and reads Nietzsche’s Anti-Christ, jokes about racism, has rough Craigslist sex. The last quarter of the book, the reader has access to Kazmierczak’s emails. The emails are dominated by conversations between his friends pertaining to sex, racist jokes and violent fantasies. These pages are by far the most disturbing, because the voice of the narrator disappears, and the reader is just left alone with a gunman and his sick thoughts.
By writing through this gunman’s scope, Vann achieves a successful, gut-wrenching and reluctantly sympathetic study of a mentally ill young man, turned murderer. But even though the subtitle of the book says A portrait of the NIU School Shooter, Vann beleaguers the point that his book is not meant to be a mug shot image of Steve Kazmierczak, the spree-shooter, but a mosaic of a mentally ill man who in the end, took his own life: “I’ve clarified this by letting everyone know that I’m writing a story for Esquire and a book, and I’ve also said my intention is to write a more sympathetic piece about Steve, looking at his final act primarily as a suicide.”
Last Day On Earth: A Portrait of the NIU Shooter by David Vann
University of Georgia