"Last Day on Earth’’ is a short but very tough read. It couldn’t be otherwise, given its subject: Steve Kazmierczak’s killing of five people, wounding of 18, and ultimate suicide on Valentine’s Day 2008, in a lecture hall at Northern Illinois University. The book shows us the “real’’ Steve, the person the major media outlets were never able to access because of guardedness by those closest to him - it gets more and more frightening as the figure it portrays seems more and more like someone we might have known, as David Vann’s reportage focuses, like a painfully accurate microscope, on its subject.
Vann’s story, originally commissioned by Esquire magazine and winner of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award for Creative Nonfiction, is complicated, but he tells it with grace and clarity. Kazmierczak’s inner life was bleak, to put it mildly. The word “bleak,’’ though, has to be qualified. Vann’s look at Kazmierczak is unflinching and careful; he presents exceedingly well-organized research on the shooter, a fleshed-out play-by-play of his life from young adulthood up until the attack, replete with quotes from e-mails, papers, and chat messages that trace his slow descent from a troubled young man with promise into one quietly spiraling out of control.
He bounced in and out of psych wards and halfway houses throughout his youth. He ultimately found partial salvation under the wing of an idealistic professor in college, whose open, spontaneous teaching style led him to challenge himself intellectually and personally. He would graduate from Northern Illinois University a success, winning a dean’s award. Later he would become a respected graduate student in sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, primarily known as a gentle person who always showed good manners. And yet, when no one was looking, Kazmierczak spent a lot of time in Internet chat rooms, trolling Craigslist for quick, shallow sex, espousing his extreme racist views in e-mails or to various girlfriends, studying subjects like mass murderers and Hitler, and developing an intensely nihilistic personal philosophy.
Vann casts Kazmierczak’s actions into semi-relief by describing his own youthful difficulties and unsettling flirtation with guns, which could easily, in Vann’s telling, have led to something like the Valentine’s Day shootings. Vann grew up in a hunting family, and an early comfort with guns learned from his father (who committed suicide) led to target practice at moving cars with friends - and then into bomb-making and other destructive activities. Vann’s recollections lend authenticity to this project, making it as much about personal discovery as about research. Vann was able to get access to Kazmierczak’s family, friends, and professors because he made it clear he wasn’t from the press - but also, one would have to think, because his joined fascination and sincere concern must have been evident to interviewees.
Vann is also able to add needed poetry to this story. Certain scenes have a scary stillness to them: Vann himself, perched on a roof, waiting for cars to pass by so he could shoot them; the snow on the ground as Kazmierczak drove to the motel where he would hole up in the days before Feb. 14; Vann’s imagined image of Kazmierczak sitting on the end of his motel bed, smoking, a few minutes before heading to campus. During one of the more peaceful times of Kazmierczak’s life, after he had joined the Army, Vann describes his mind as “open, stretching on and on, a kind of wind that’s blown all the anxiety away.’’ These moments contribute to the broader picture of Kazmierczak’s life, built as it is on rock solid journalism - though they are few and far between, for in a document like this, claustrophobic with desperation and misery, there isn’t too much room for lyricism to breathe.
Max Winter’s “The Pictures’’ was published in 2007. He can be reached at email@example.com.