Interview and Review of Last Day on Earth by David Vann
By Tim Chamberlain
Note: Tim Chamberlain’s interview of David Vann is being broadcast on KAZI Book Review today, 12:30 p.m. – 1 p.m. central time on KAZI 88.7 FM. Listen live online at kazifm.org or on your iphone through live365 iphone app.
Last Day on Earth tells the story of Steve Kazmierczak, a Dean’s Award winner who killed five students and himself at Northern Illinois University on Valentine’s Day 2008. The book stems from an assignment from Esquire, and this gave Vann access to the full 1500-page police file that was not provided to any other media source.
Vann’s take on the story is interesting because he is looking at it all through the lens of his own brushes with darkness–an early question Vann asks is why Steve became a murderer and Vann did not. The author is very candid about the troubles of his own childhood (especially his father’s suicide) and how he mirrored some of Steve’s destructive and dangerous tendencies as a teen. Examining the similarities and differences between Vann and Kazmierczak is illuminating, especially as their paths diverge around high school.
While this is the story of a troubled young man and how he came to be a mass murderer, it is also an indictment of this country’s gun control (or lack thereof) as well as how we deal with mental illness. Vann stated that he originally wanted this story to examine the ease with which kids can access guns, but he soon found his focus widening to these larger issues. One of the most chilling observations made in this book is how American culture is perfectly shaped to produce people like Steve, and it’s frankly surprising that these shootings don’t happen more often.
As Vann details, there are numerous warning signs that Steve might do something to hurt himself or others. Unfortunately, most of these signs were shown in isolation, and no one really had much of a complete picture of Steve. The biggest exception would be Steve’s former girlfriend (and roommate at the time of the shootings), Jessica Baty. While she certainly had many hints from Steve that all was not well, Vann observes that Jessica herself is still in denial about what Steve did.
The author states that he wants his story to be a “more sympathetic piece on Steve, looking at his final act primarily as a suicide.” To be fair, Vann gives Steve as much sympathy as he is able, and this is a very personal, intimate story. It should be noted, though, that Vann is still unflinching in his assessment of both Steve and of the societal ills that made his final act possible.
Last Day on Earth is frankly a disturbing book, and not just because of the descriptions of Steve’s aberrant behavior or the story of the shooting itself. It is disturbing because one gets a view of how our culture, especially in terms of gun control and mental health, is primed to produce shooters like Steve. Vann delivers a well-written take on a frightening story, and he also holds a mirror up to some of the more distasteful parts of American culture.
In addition to Last Day on Earth, Vann is releasing his new novel, Dirt, in May 2012.