How do We Get to the Center, When the Center Has Yet to Be Undetermined? ‘A Safeway in Arizona’

The best material in Tom Zoellner’s A Safeway in Arizona: What the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting Tells Us About the Grand Canyon State and Life in America comes at the beginning: a moment-by-moment breakdown of the events of 8 January 2011, when, during a Congress on Your Corner event at a Safeway store in Tucson, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner opened fire with a 9-millimeter Glock, wounding Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and killing six others in a rampage that took “approximately fifteen seconds from start to finish.”

These are the facts, and Zoellner, a former reporter at the Arizona Republic and the San Francisco Chronicle, does a good job of setting them out for us, breaking down the chaos and giving it an order, telling us something of the victims, who they were and where they were standing, as well as the small, essential acts of bravery that prevented Loughner, in all likelihood, from causing further harm.

Once this opening is finished, A Safeway in Arizona faces some irresolvable problems — problems of construction and, even more, of interpretation and form. In writing about the Giffords shooting, Zoellner has taken on a story that is, for now anyway, open-ended, full of unanswered questions about the congresswoman’s recovery and the fate of her assailant, who has yet to go on trial. How, then, do we get to the center of it, when the center has yet to be determined? What gives this the coherence of a book?

As it turns out, such issues ultimately derail Zoellner’s efforts, which, of necessity perhaps, quickly turn outward, considering the culture of Arizona and asking whether the state’s “peculiar oxygen (was) in some way responsible for the decision of a twenty-two-year-old man to go down to the grocery to assassinate his congresswoman?” Zoellner’s answer? Yes and no, which makes for another set of problems, since it leaves us never completely sure of where he stands.

This matter of Zoellner’s standing, his positioning in the story, is important because, as he acknowledges from the early going, he and Giffords are friends. He worked on her campaigns and hung out with her in her Barrio Viejo neighborhood south of Tucson’s downtown. Some of the most affecting writing in the book, in fact, involves these peregrinations, their visits “to a hipster bar on Congress Street” or to the shrine of El Tiradito, “the castaway” — a “crumbling brick crib full of flickering glass candles” that dates to the 1870s but remains unrecognized by the Catholic Church “because it commemorates the death of a sinner.”

Here, we get a taste not just of Zoellner’s relationship with Giffords but also of Arizona history, and the tensions that define the state. It’s not a far stretch from the outcast status of El Tiradito to the immigration battles embodied by Senate Bill 1070 or the desperation of a graying white power structure to maintain its influence over an increasingly Latino populace.

Such issues come up often in A Safeway in Arizona, as Zoellner seeks to use the Giffords shooting as a mirror to reflect the unresolved conflicts of the state. One by one, he cycles through real estate development, immigration, gun rights, the rise of the tea party, the breakdown of community — all as a way of getting at a larger context, in which the attack might make a twisted kind of sense. Although he backs away from the notion that heightened rhetoric, both in Arizona and on the national level, might have influenced the shooter (“I don’t think,” he writes in the closing pages, “that the atmosphere of twenty-first-century Arizona made this crime inevitable or was the motivating cause of it. There was only one responsible human party: Jared Lee Loughner, who is gravely mentally ill”), he can’t help coming back to the sense that it may have been a factor all the same.

“Loughner’s feelings of existential helplessness were a distorted amplification of what surrounded him that year in Arizona: a lack of jobs, a lack of confidence in the future, an angry dialogue, a sense that politicians were ultimately to blame, and that only a courageous act of restoration could improve the outlook,” Zoellner writes. And yet, if that’s the case, what of Loughner’s profound psychological derangement, which Zoellner also documents? What of his belief that Loughner might have been stopped had only someone — parent, fellow student, administrator at Pima Community College, from which he was suspended three months before the shooting — “start(ed) a legal process to get (him) some treatment or committed to a hospital”?

Here we have a key contradiction of A Safeway in Arizona which veers between seeing the Giffords shooting as emblematic and isolated, as a metaphor for a larger social dysfunction and the act of a disturbed young man. Zoellner, it seems, believes it’s both, but he never quite articulates that convincingly. Again, it’s a matter of knowing where he stands — but even more, it has to do with his inability to find a through-line, to frame the shooting in the broader terms he seeks.

Certainly, Giffords became a lightning rod in the year before she was attacked by Loughner: targeted on an election map by Sarah Palin, disparaged for her “yes” vote on the healthcare bill. Certainly, Arizona is a state with many problems, perhaps most centrally, Zoellner suggests, its lack of a population with deep roots. Still, there’s no particular evidence that the Giffords shooting has anything to say about the place itself. What is it about Arizona? For all that Zoellner wants to connect the dots, if his book has anything to tell us, it’s that this could have happened anywhere.

In the end, that brings us back to the essential problem of a project such as this one: that it is impossible to tell a story before it is done. There’s still too much we don’t know about the Giffords shooting, beginning with the fate of Giffords herself.

As for Loughner, it’s clear from the traces he left behind that he’s as dissociated as they come. “I’m in a terrible place,” he declared in a video posted on YouTube in fall 2010: a brief moment of clarity in an otherwise rambling monologue. It is from out of such a place that he acted on 8 January 2011 — a place that, despite Zoellner’s arguments to the contrary, has less to do with Arizona than with his own bleak and jumbled inner world.

RATING 3 / 10