The powerful new young-adult novel “Violent Ends” is built around the day that 16-year-old Kirby Matheson entered the Middleborough High School gym during a first-period pep rally with a 9mm pistol. He killed five students and one teacher before shooting himself. He chose some people to murder and others to save. He shattered countless lives and left a community asking that most frustrating and futile question: “Why?”
This story is the brainchild of Shaun David Hutchinson, author of “The Deathday Letter,” and is told from 17 points of view, each written by a different author or author team. Some sections are stronger, more interesting. others are overwrought or perplexing. Many (such as “History Lessons” and “Burning Effigies”) are so gut-wrenching they’re difficult to read straight through. With its fractured format, “Violent Ends” reflects what its story strives to make clear: People are divided into so many different selves with so many different secrets, that it’s all but impossible to answer “Why?”
The first two chapters offer glimpses of Kirby’s childhood. In the standout chapter “Miss Susie,” Steve Brezenoff writes from the perspective of Kirby’s nine-year-old neighbor, Susanna Byrd, who witnesses firsthand the kind of bullying 12-year-old Kirby endures. “Violent Beginnings” by Beth Revis takes place on the day of the shooting at a high school near Middleborough. In it, Teddy is forced to reconcile his camp memories of Kirby with the shooter he sees on TV. “They want proof that he was a monster from the start,” Teddy says, but realizes that he can’t give people the reassurances they want. “There’s no way to make his parents less worried about the evil hidden inside the heart of someone who doesn’t look like a monster. Who never really acted like one.”
With each chapter, readers learn more about Kirby, but the additional facts, insights, and observations don’t bring understanding. If anything, they make Kirby and his motivations less clear. Kirby was a guy with a family history of depression and suicide. He was a guy who knew his own sister was in the gym the day of the shooting. He was capable of great maliciousness, even as a child. However, Kirby was also capable of great charity. He helped his friend Zachary escape her abusive father, stopped popular cheerleader Lauren Hamby from committing suicide, and “saved” fellow marching band member Jenny Bernard in ways she can never repay.
That said, when Lauren observes, “None of us know anyone, not really,” she isn’t talking about Kirby. She’s talking about herself and how she hides her desperate unhappiness. Other characters, too, have secrets, buried demons, tortured inner lives, and other selves that the world never sees. Jenny buries her feelings about Kirby’s death as she makes her life an apology for surviving. Months after Kirby shot her best friend, Morgan Castro feels, “haunted by her own inability to move forward.” And bully Nate Fiorello is tormented by the idea that, “[w]e’ll just live with our dead until we join them.”
Though “Violent Ends” works as a whole, there a few bent nails on which the overall story snags. That several individuals are mesmerized by (maybe even obsessed with) Kirby rings a little-too-convenient, and some heal unbelievably quickly given the monstrous trauma they’ve suffered. While these first points just cause brief pauses, the chapter written from the perspective of Kirby’s gun, though full of striking writing (“And this boy’s now is filled with mines and monsters.”), creates an abrupt stop. The first-person narration from an inanimate object is unsettling, maybe even ridiculous, given that it’s sandwiched between stories from student survivors.
The point that “Violent Ends” so beautifully makes isn’t just that there are answers we will never have and human actions we will never understand. It also demonstrates this: We cannot 100 percent know the depth of another person’s heart. We cannot know the whys and whats of his soul.
This idea could be sad, but it doesn’t have to be. Instead of rendering human beings powerless, it could render them more compassionate. Knowing that the stranger who just bumped you in the hall or that the awkward loner who sits behind you in class each have a story, makes it easier to chose kindness — again, again, and again.
Edited by Shaun David Hutchinson
Simon Pulse , 352 pp., $17.99