Nearly a year ago, Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head during a meeting with constituents. The scene of the crime was a Safeway parking lot, just outside Tucson, and the suspect was Jared Lee Loughner, a 22-year-old man, whose deranged-looking mug shot has been since burned into the minds of Americans nationwide. Giffords, as we all now know, survived the attempted assassination, but not everyone else was so lucky.
“The city of Dallas did not ‘kill’ President Kennedy any more than the state of Arizona killed six citizens and injured thirteen,’’ writes Tom Zoellner in “A Safeway in Arizona: What the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting Tells Us About the Grand Canyon State and Life in America.’’ But the subject - and the style - of his book consists of the caveats to that assertion, the contexts that “must always be taken into account, because events are otherwise meaningless.’’
Zoellner’s genre-defying project, which was somehow completed in less than a year, is staggeringly ambitious. He uses January’s tragedy as an opportunity to examine everything from the paradoxical role alien labor plays in Arizona’s economy to the state’s self-mythologizing image “as a land tamed by the gun.’’ Zoellner devotes an entire chapter to the etiology and cultural history of schizophrenia - Loughner has been diagnosed with the illness and declared incompetent to stand trial - before seguing into an investigation of Arizona’s mental health laws.
Zoellner portrays Arizona as a playground for the absentee wealthy, a place “free of nature and history’’ that makes up for its lack of social capital with environmentally ruinous golf courses and now-drained swimming pools. Bank-seized McMansions, formerly redolent of “the narrative of a fresh start in a warm place,’’ pock a barren landscape.
“A Safeway in Arizona,’’ however, is more than a just panoramic view of a state in pain (Arizona is among the poorest states in the union; in 2008, when the foreclosure rate shot up 81 percent nationally, it climbed by 203 percent in Arizona, according to RealtyTrak, a California real estate firm). It’s also a catalog of Zoellner’s personal preoccupations: the origins of modern talk radio, the geological history of the Southwest, his own gloomy childhood spent wandering Tucson’s dry washes and playing in the empty cul-de-sacs of abandoned housing developments.
All too often, narrative nonfiction is made muddy with an excess of “journalistic color,’’ an accumulation of charming details that prove the author is paying attention, but nothing more. Zoellner’s reporting actually pays off; his information advances the plot, and his book embraces an almost thriller-style narrative structure, with explanations that look back to earlier scenes and unexpected returns to that January morning in the Safeway parking lot.
Even the seriousness of Zoellner’s own authority is disclosed as a sort of baiting reveal. Not only is he a fifth-generation Arizonan, but he’s also an old friend of Gifford - a fact we don’t learn until halfway through the book’s third chapter. “Her hair was whisky-colored,’’ he remembers, “and her voice was of a mildly squeaky register - girlish but not unserious.’’ The dramatic irony of writing about Giffords first as if she was a woman he didn’t know isn’t duplicitous; it’s of a piece with the rest of the book, which seeks to unearth hidden, structural explanations for the shooting. Zoellner plots out the burgeoning friendship in a way that justifies the inclusion of autobiographical detail; she offers him words of encouragement at a professional low point, and when he begins to help her campaign, he’s forced to realize, yet again, just how much the urban design of Tucson, which perches on the edge of the Sonoran Desert, contributes to a sense of isolation.
Zoellner is careful not to point fingers directly - at individuals (Loughner’s parents), institutions (Pima Community College), geography (suburban sprawl), or laws (Arizona’s lax gun control). But he doesn’t hesitate to identify them all as players in the tragedy. “A Safeway in Arizona’’ is a masterly work of reporting, historical analysis, and sly cultural criticism. Arizona celebrates its 100th birthday next year. Let’s hope Zoellner takes the anniversary as an occasion to pen yet more pieces about the state, in all its horror and hope.