“a short book but a visceral one.”
Paul Auster, one of our very best novelists, with 29 books to his credit, sometimes delves into non-fiction, and Bloodbath Nation is, for him, one from the heart. This short book, illustrated with black-and-white photographs by Spencer Ostrander, is an impassioned essay against the seemingly unstoppable spasm of gun violence in America. Its main focus is the aggrieved loners and hate-motivated killers who, armed to the teeth, attack public places with the intent of indiscriminately killing as many people as possible.
The book starts right on the cover. “Each year, approximately 40,000 Americans are killed by gunshot wounds,” it says, “which is roughly equivalent to the annual rate of traffic deaths on American roads and highways.” It works out to about 100 Americans killed by bullets and one mass shooting every day.
Bloodbath Nation isn’t primarily an argument for gun control, though it’s firmly supportive of any such laws that could get passed in polarized America—where “thoughts and prayers” is the standard response to any new incident. It’s more of a call to action, reporting on the worst of it and ripping off any veneer of normalcy that could possibly exist.
Auster reports that there are 393 million guns currently owned by Americans, more than one for every man, woman, and child in the country. Even if we stopped the flow of new weaponry tomorrow, it will remain very easy, for the foreseeable future, for anyone to acquire a firearm in any U.S. city, and in its rural enclaves, too.
Canada has a lot of guns as well. In a population of 38 million, four million adults said they own at least one gun. But Canada has 30.8 gun crimes per 100 residents, and the U.S. has 88.8—three times more. The U.S. murder rate is 23 times that of Canada. In America, we don’t just own guns, we use them against each other.
Auster gets to the heart of this, and brutally pounds his points home. “[T]he toll of gun violence goes far beyond the pierced and bloodied bodies of the victims themselves, spilling out into the devastations visited upon their immediate families, their extended families, their friends, their fellow workers, the people of their neighborhoods, their schools, their churches, their softball teams, and communities at large—the vast brigade of lives touched by the presence of a single person who lives or has lived among them—meaning that the number of Americans directly or indirectly marked by gun violence every year must be tallied in the millions,” he writes.
There are few better story tellers than Paul Auster, and he tells two memorable—and personal—ones in Bloodbath Nation. Growing up, he never knew what happened to his paternal grandfather, who died when his father was young. Asking his dad about it, “There was always a pause before he answered, and each time he gave me the story it was different from the one he had told earlier.” In one version, he fell off a tall building he was working on, and in others he was killed in a hunting accident or died in World War I.
But the truth was that in 1919, just after the Armistice was signed and Prohibition enacted, his grandmother shot and killed his grandfather—who had left the family and was living in Chicago with another woman. In a trial, she was acquitted on the grounds of temporary insanity, and reunited with her five children, who subsequently grew up in poverty. “The gun had caused all this, and not only did the children have no father, they lived with the knowledge that their mother had killed him,” Auster writes.
In the second story, Auster describes a trip he took as a merchant marine in 1970, and highlights what he learns about two of his seemingly normal shipmates. Both had intimate contact with guns, and one, Lamar, “a short, stringy-haired redhead from Baton Rouge with . . . eight letters tattooed onto the knuckles of his to hands, L.O.V.E. and H.A.T.E., the same marks inscribed onto the fingers of Robert Mitchum’s demented preacher in Night of the Hunter,” tells Auster, matter-of-factly, a story about himself so horrendous it’s hard to credit. Does it involve guns and their murderous use? Of course it does.
Ostrander’s photos are of mass shooting sites—not during the assaults, but after them. There are no people present. Without context, they’re just photos of churches, stores, and places of business—the same sights most of us see every day. But the photo captions tell us, for instance, that at the King Soopers supermarket in Boulder. Colorado, on March 22, 2021, 10 people were killed and two injured. Looking closely, we see memorials, police barricades, and sometimes vacant lots where buildings were razed.
Many of these sites will be familiar, but there are too many of these shootings to track. At the West Nickel Mines School, a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Bart Township, Pennsylvania, a gunman killed six girls between the ages of six and 13, and injured five, on October 2, 2006. It didn’t affect the country the way the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut (26 dead) did six years later, but it can certainly be argued that neither event altered our gun violence trajectory significantly.
Auster also probes the personalities and actions of the (mostly) young men who commit these crimes, focusing especially on a “brutal, hotheaded, out-of-control, 26-year-old fuckup” who killed 25 people, one of them a pregnant woman, and wounded 22 at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in 2017. This is a man who fractured his stepson’s skull, terrorized his first wife with a loaded gun to her head, and used shelter animals for target practice. He spent a year in a military prison, was discharged from the Air Force for bad conduct, but his crimes while in service were not reported to federal authorities. And that meant he could and did buy guns.
But this is a Paul Auster book, and so he also tells the story of the gun lover who heard the Texas church shootings while they were in progress and, at risk to his own life, charged into the building, wounded the gunman, sent him running (thus saving many lives), and then pursued the killer by car until the killer crashed and killed himself. He didn’t consider himself a hero, and in fact was torn apart by the incident. “We aren’t designed to take the life of another person,” he said. “It damages us. It changes us.” But the man remained a member of the NRA, and in fact appeared in a commercial for the organization.
It’s a short book but a visceral one. Will it be read by the people whose hearts and minds could be changed by it? Probably not. Will it stop the insane death spiral? No. Should you read it? Yes.