Bloodbath Nation

Paul Auster

Photographs by Spencer Ostrander

Faber & Faber, £25


More Americans, writes Paul Auster, have died by gunshot since 1968 than in any of its wars “since the first shot was fired in the American Revolution”. That was almost 250 years ago. The sheer amplitude of so much senseless carnage, he says, is enough to make your knees buckle.

Bloodbath Nation is an attempt by one of America’s most feted modernist novelists to explain why his country is the most violent in the western world. To do so, he must go back to the roots of the ever-widening chasm between those desperate for tighter gun control and their opponents, gathered under the banner of the NRA (National Rifle Association). That lobby opposes any attempt to water down the legislation that upholds the Second Amendment – “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed”. This archaic clause is widely interpreted as proving beyond doubt the individual’s right to carry a gun.

Auster’s account is an impassioned yet clear-eyed analysis of arguably the most embittered debate – just one of several – threatening to tear the USA apart. Throughout, his text is illustrated with sombre black and white photographs by Spencer Ostrander, of the sites of recent mass shootings. Their power lies in their deliberate, understated ordinariness, their Hopper-like evocation of the unremarkable everyday which, because of what happened there, are a harrowing reminder of the prevalence and randomness of gun massacres: a plain white church, a Walmart store, cinema, night club, synagogue, Sikh temple, car-wash… the list runs and runs.

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At the heart of Bloodbath Nation is the conundrum posed by the NRA’s response to the massacre of 26 schoolchildren in Sandy Hook in 2012: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” And despite Auster’s anti-gun sentiments, he offers an example of a case in which that dictum was proved right.

When a man set out to murder his estranged wife’s mother in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in 2017, he turned his gun on the whole congregation, even though she was not present. Across the street, a middle-aged plumber, a crack shot and staunch member of the NRA, was alerted to the sound of gunfire and raced out of his house, barefoot but well-armed. Hollering at the killer, he halted his spree (by then, 26 were dead and almost as many injured) and, in a shoot-out, managed to badly injure him. After a car chase, the murderer crashed his car and shot himself in the head before he could be captured.

The hero of the hour – who would never accept that title – was badly shaken: “We aren’t designed to take the life of another person. It damages us. It changes us.” He will always regret not getting to the church earlier and saving more lives. Yet as Auster reflects, this instance of an undeniably good guy with a gun was “so exceptional as to be a stand alone event that does not validate the NRA’s position but in fact undermines it”. Ultimately, he writes, “if the bad men had no guns, why would the good men need them?”

Every year, around 40,000 Americans are killed by guns, and a further 80,000 wounded. Auster’s hard-hitting response to the devastation these weapons are causing has a very personal core. He was raised in a family with no interest in guns, but only in adult life did he discover the depth of his father’s antipathy. Auster’s grandmother had shot dead his grandfather, who had left her for another woman. This “hot-headed, and often unhinged matriarch” was not jailed but raised his dad and his siblings, one of whom had witnessed the deed. His father grew into a troubled, emotionally withdrawn man.

HeraldScotland: Sandy HookSandy Hook (Image: free)

That dreadful event was in 1919, shortly before the bootlegging era, which ushered in a whole new level of armed violence. The American Wild West of cowboy films is a myth: in a notorious place such as Deadwood, only four people were killed in its most violent year. By comparison with today, this was a halcyon, well-regulated era.

Going back to America’s colonial prehistory – the 180 years when settlers lived “in a state of unending armed conflict” – Auster draws a portrait of a divided country pulled uneasily together under the banner of the Declaration of Independence. Stirring though its rhetoric about equality and liberty is, he calls it a statement of “sublime hypocrisy”, given the colonists’ massacre of indigenous peoples, and a flourishing slave economy. In order to gain the agreement of southern states, two paragraphs weakly condemning slavery were excised.

In a dark twist of history, it was the demands of the Black Panthers in 1967, who were protesting against a gun-control bill, which led to the NRA becoming an anti-gun-control movement. Auster writes: “The irony is that a movement which is predominantly white, rural and conservative should have come into being because it embraced the gun philosophy of a group which was Black, urban and radical: the foundational belief that guns are primarily an instrument of self-defense and, to quote Chairman Mao (as the Panthers did), that ‘political power grows out of the barrel of a gun’.”

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Forthright though it is, Bloodbath Nation is not a polemic; what would be the point? Although its tone is grim and sorrowful, it is humane in its depiction of a society utterly riven on this issue. For those of us who cannot comprehend the US’s addiction to guns, this is essential – and riveting – reading. Every page carries a punch, as it reaches into the heart of a nation’s idea of itself.

For those desperate for good news, Auster sees glimmers of hope around the margins of gun-control, on which both sides might agree. Yet this would represent tinkering rather than wholesale reform. He accepts that legislation is not the answer; only the will of the people can change things. Given that since the start of the pandemic incidents of shootings have rocketed, as have sales of guns, it would be remarkable if the disarming of America happens in Auster’s and our lifetime.