WHEN I picked up Paul Auster’s Bloodbath Nation, I thought I’d be writing this review in the shadow of yet another American mass shooting. And indeed, I am. Five people recently died in Charlotte, North Carolina, home to one of my closest friends.

What I didn’t reckon on was writing this review in the shadow of Auster’s death. He died just one day after murder came to Charlotte. At 77, he was one of the greatest writers of his generation. Auster’s New York Trilogy alone put him in the first-rank of post-war novelists.

Yet Bloodbath Nation isn’t a novel, it’s a work of journalism, an account by one of America’s greatest minds of his country’s most appalling disfunction: it’s addiction to the gun.

Auster blends the personal with the political in his final work. He begins with a story from his childhood, when he’s a boy obsessed with gangster movies and westerns, wreathed in gun-smoke. During summer-camp, Auster tries his hand at shooting. He’s a natural, but guns aren’t something his family encourage.

It turns out that guns haunt Auster’s family. His paternal grandmother shot and killed Auster’s grandfather in the Wisconsin town Kenosha, long before his birth. Auster doesn’t uncover the truth of this family secret until well into his adulthood. The murder broke his father as a child. “The gun that killed my grandfather ruined my father’s life,” Auster writes.

The Herald: Paul AusterPaul Auster (Image: free)

This is the book’s universal truth: every gunshot leaves multiple victims behind. Not just the dead, but their loved ones, classmates, colleagues, neighbours. A gunshot can reverberate through a community for generations.

Auster’s book is illustrated with stark images of mass shooting sites after the mayhem has passed: malls, campuses and offices forever stuck in that moment of murder.

Auster asks one simple question: why is America so addicted to guns? The answer comes in an exploration of US history. This nation was founded upon the gun. During the colonial era, America was in “a state of unending armed conflict”. Settlers felt they had “the god-given right” to conquer America’s indigenous people.

Life became an orgy of murder and displacement. Pioneers were required by law to join local militias. If you and your neighbours are going to kill every man, woman and child in nearby tribes, then you’ll sublimate guilt and expectation of revenge into rage. American life became founded upon “fear and violence”.

Nor can America escape the legacy of slavery when it comes to its addiction to the gun. As Auster explains, if you enslave an entire race of people, you need guns. Patrols hunting escaped slaves became “a southern gestapo”.

America was built on the blood-soaked lie that ‘all men are created equal’, and the trajectory towards its present-day hell was assured with the constitutional promise in the second amendment that every citizen has the right to bear arms.

Evidently, those arms were in large part permitted in order to protect the distinct lack of equality in early American life.

Nevertheless, many laws were passed from the colonial period into the 20th century limiting gun rights, like ‘open carry’ and ‘concealed carry’, requiring owners to have permits and licences.


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During the Public Enemy Era - when the likes of Bonnie and Clyde terrorised citizens - America quickly passed the National Firearms Act, effectively banning machine-guns.

The Wild West was actually much safer than modern America. From 1877-1886, there were just 15 gun deaths in Dodge City. Tombstone’s most violent year saw five killed - three in the Gunfight at the OK Corral. During Deadwood’s most violent year four died. Why? Strict gun control laws.

Today, there’s 393 million guns in America - more weapons than people. Annually, 40,000 Americans are shot. More than 100 Americans die by gunshot every day, that includes suicides.

So what happened? Why did America in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century have a much better grip on gun violence than the America of today?

The answer lies in that brutal racist past. Until the Civil Rights era, guns weren’t a divisive issue. Then, however, the National Rifle Association (NRA) changed. In the 1960s, the NRA focused on sport and hunting.

As racial tensions mounted, though, the NRA turned political, and guns became a comfort blanket for fearful, resentful whites. This was the era of political assassination, culminating in the murder of Martin Luther King.

US culture also crystallised the gun into a crude symbol of what America believes it represents: freedom and individuality. Today, guns, says Auster, are “the central metaphor for everything that divides us and threatens to tear us to pieces, and put an end to the American experiment”.

What of the killers? The lone gunmen? “The single word which runs through their stories is loneliness,” Auster believes. America’s ruthless variant of capitalism has clearly fostered an atomised society of isolation, dread and selfishness.

The world looks at America in stunned horror as each new gun outrage tops the previous. “Annihilation of strangers has been turned into a competitive sport,” Auster writes, “and a sinister new variant of contemporary art performance.”

Yet increasingly, mass shootings have moved from the realm of the mentally-ill outsider to the political, with killings targeting black people, Jewish people, the LGBT community, and women.

The Herald: Kyle Rittenhouse cries in courtKyle Rittenhouse cries in court (Image: free)

To cap the madness, thousands believe the victims of these appalling massacres are ‘crisis actors’ and the murders fake. “One form of American madness gives way to another,” Auster says.

Yet this divided country is incapable of a sane conversation about its greatest ill. Most Americans want some form of gun control, while still permitting the right to own weapons, however the political cold war in Congress - funded by the gun lobby - means no solution is viable.

In truth, America’s problem with the gun is the ultimate expression of culture war. Liberals and conservatives cannot compromise. So the nation remains bathed in blood.

There’s no happy ending in Auster’s final work. As he concludes, Auster notes that Kenosha - where his grandmother shot his grandfather - became a symbol of this intractable culture war, when 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse shot dead two men during a Black Lives Matter demonstration in the Wisconsin town.

Does the future now belong to the likes of Rittenhouse, he asks in closing, the very last words Auster was ever to write in his remarkable literary life.

Bloodbath Nation is out now from Faber priced £14.99 in paperback