Books

'Last Day on Earth': A CAT Scan of a Killer’s Thought Process

Mike Dunham
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
Steve Kazmierczak

The bleak vision is as nihilistic as the creed of its central character: There are many more calculating, blood-lusting Steve Kazmierczaks out there — and there's nothing authorities can do to protect you from them.

Last Day on Earth: A Portrait of the NIU School Shooter

Publisher: University of Georgia Press
Length: 184 pages
Author: David Vann
Price: $24.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2011-10
Amazon

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.

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

Last Day on Earth 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 14 February 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 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.

7

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

West London's WheelUP Merges Broken Beat and Hip-Hop on "Stay For Long" (premiere)

West London producer WheelUP reached across the pond to Brint Story to bring some rapid-fire American hip-hop to his broken beat revival on "Stay For Long".

Music

PM Picks Playlist 4: Stellie, The Brooks, Maude La​tour

Today's playlist features the premiere of Stellie's "Colours", some top-class funk from the Brooks, Berne's eco-conscious electropop, clever indie-pop from Maude Latour, Jaguar Jonze rocking the mic, and Meresha's "alien pop".

Culture

Plattetopia: The Prefabrication of Utopia in East Berlin

With the fall of the Berlin Wall came the licence to take a wrecking ball to its nightmare of repression. But there began the unwritten violence of Die Wende, the peaceful revolution that hides the Oedipal violence of one order killing another.

Music

Electrosoul's Flõstate Find "Home Ground" on Stunning Song (premiere)

Flõstate are an electrosoul duo comprised of producer MKSTN and singer-songwriter Avery Florence that create a mesmerizing downtempo number with "Home Ground".

Music

Orchestra Baobab Celebrate 50 Years with Vinyl of '​Specialist in All Styles'

As Orchestra Baobab turn 50, their comeback album Specialist in All Styles gets a vinyl reissue.

Music

Hot Chip Stay Up for 'Late Night Tales'

Hot Chip's contribution to the perennial compilation project Late Night Tales is a mixed bag, but its high points are consistent with the band's excellence.

Music

The Budos Band Call for Action on "The Wrangler" (premiere)

The Budos Band call on their fans for action with the powerful new track "The Wrangler" that falls somewhere between '60s spy thriller soundtrack and '70s Ethiojazz.

Music

Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" Ruminates on Our Second-Guesses (premiere)

A deep reflection on breaking up, Nashville indie rock/Americana outfit Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" is the most personal track from their new album, Home Team.

Books

For Don DeLillo, 'The Silence' Is Deafening

In Don DeLillo's latest novel, The Silence, it is much like our post-pandemic life -- everything changed but nothing happened. Are we listening?

Music

Brett Newski Plays Slacker Prankster on "What Are You Smoking?" (premiere)

Is social distancing something we've been doing, unwittingly, all along? Brett Newski pulls some pranks, raises some questions in "What Are You Smoking?".

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Becky Warren Shares "Good Luck" and Discusses Music and Depression

Becky Warren finds slivers of humor while addressing depression for the third time in as many solo concept albums, but now the daring artist is turning the focus on herself in a fight against a frightful foe.

Music

Fleet Foxes Take a Trip to the 'Shore'

On Shore, Fleet Foxes consist mostly of founding member Robin Pecknold. Recording with a band in the age of COVID-19 can be difficult. It was just time to make this record this way.

Books

'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.

Film

Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.

Music

3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".

Books

'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.

Music

Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.