Book Book Book Book
Commentary Commentary RSS Reviews Podcasts_Audio Podcasts RSS Blog Links Archives Indexes

David Vann
Last Day on Earth: A Portrait of the NIU School Shooter
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2011

University of Georgia Press
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-820-33839-2
Publication Date: 10-15-2011
172 Pages ; $24.95
Date Reviewed: 12-08-2011

Index:  Non-Fiction  Mystery  General Fiction  Horror

"After my father's suicide, I inherited all his guns," David Vann tells us in the opening of 'Last Day on Earth: A Portrait of the NIU School Shooter.' "I was thirteen." Vann doesn't pull any punches. In the next two pages, he describes himself loading a high-power rifle and putting his neighbors' houses and front doors in the crosshairs, then shooting out streetlights two hundred yards away. His literary aim as a non-fiction writer is just as deadly. 'Last Day on Earth' is an intense and very disturbing portrait, not just of an individual, but of a nation.

Vann's book is not simply the story of Steve Kazmierczak; Vann interleaves his own story, with an underlying question; why did Kazmierczak end up as a mass murderer, but not Vann himself? Vann's exploration of this is an uncomfortable look into our innate capacity for violence. Weaving back and forth between his own childhood and teen years and those of Kazmierczak, Vann reveals his own weaknesses as well as those of the shooter. 'Last Day On Earth' is a compelling descent into madness that does not itself succumb to the madness it examines. Don't expect to find a lot of sympathy for the devil or anyone else in this raw and uncompromising work.

'Last Day On Earth' is book that many hoped to write, but none succeeded. Before Vann, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and even CNN tried to get the story. But in the five years before the shootings, Steve Kazmierczak had come back from the brink and almost re-invented himself. Vann, already a memoirist and a professor, was able to get those who surrounded Kazmierczak in the final five years to tell what little they did know. He listened. That got him access to 1,500 pages of police files, and then he decided to go back and look into Kazmierczak's life before NIU. That was where the problems began, and where the book begins as well.

Vann's story is terse to the point; it reads like a hard-boiled detective novel, with every scrap of fat rendered. In less than 175 pages, he takes readers through Kazmierczak's horrific youth, and serves up an American gun culture and the shredded safety nets that made it possible for Kazmierczak to stand on stage and live out his Marilyn Manson-inspired fantasies. It's a page-turning, terrorizing maelstrom that sucks in a mentally ill young man who is unable to resist his own weaknesses in the face of a culture that exalts guns and violence.

'Last Day on Earth' may stick to the facts and nothing but the facts, especially for the magnificently architected final sequence, but the material Vann is working with is inherently incendiary and political. This is a book that presents a terrifying problem with an obvious solution that the author asserts, with evidence, will never be solved. It is dark, frightening and absolutely essential reading.

While it is true that your chances of being caught up in this sort of murder are fantastically slim, the consequences of these acts affect more than those who are killed, more than those who know the victims, and more than those who knew the killer. When we look at the dead, when we see the bodies in photographs, when we read the reports, our willingness to fight the culture that creates the violence is eroded.

Vann's book may take a long hard look at needless, preventable murders and deaths, but ultimately, the act of reading this book is an affirmation of life. Not the pretty and happy parts, but the recognition that there are things we can change. And that act of recognition, the vision this book brings with startling clarity to the readers' minds, is what must come to pass before we make the simple changes required to prevent these horrors. Until we recognize our own shortcomings, we, like David Vann at the beginning of this book, are putting others in the line of fire.

Review Archive
All Reviews alphabetized by author.

General Fiction
Non-Genre, general fiction and literature.

Supernatural fiction, supernatural horror and non-supernatural horror.

Science Fiction
Science fiction, science fantasy, speculative fiction, alternate history.

Fantasy, surrealism and magic realism.

Crime, thrillers, mystery, suspense.

Non-Fiction, True Crime, Forteana, Reference.


Archives Indexes How to use the Agony Column Contact Us About Us