I did not follow the Columbine school shooting story beyond the initial media frenzy in 1999, so I probably wouldn't have picked up the book had it not garnered so much attention. The book won big (see here: left sidebar). So big, that I became curious how Cullen could have managed to provide a fresh, engrossing reassembling of facts which had to be, at this point, a matter of public record.
Cullen structures the book telescopically. He begins with a distant sketch of the shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and the culture surrounding Columbine High School's other students and faculty. At first, Cullen paints imprecise impressions of Eric and Dylan, similar to ones non-intimate peers and teachers likely would've had about them. As the book progresses, he funnels toward the two boys, padding the skeletons of their characters and psyches with chilling, heartbreaking detail. An investigative reporter, Cullen relies on scrupulously picked-over court records, eye-witness accounts, interviews, and the killers' journals and home videos to unwrap the what, when, and how of April 20th, 1999 and the event's frenzied aftermath of confusion, scandal, and factual incongruity. The suck-in-your-breath factor of the book, however, is Cullen's well-reasoned (and well-documented) supposition for why the shooters attempted to kill all of their classmates and teachers. Systematically debunking all of the favored media explanations ("It was the Trench Coat Mafia! They hated the jocks! And the Christians!"), Cullen calls on some of the most invested, experienced mental health experts privy to the details of the case to give us a window into the minds of Columbine's infamous killers. The book also weaves together the stories of the survivors--students, parents, and faculty--who continue to fumble toward healing in different ways.
I am a mother of three kids with a low tolerance for horror. I practically had to hide The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold under my bed at night because it freaked me out, irreparably. (Frailty, thy name is Home Girl). However, Cullen handles a terrifying topic with a sensitive alchemy of abstraction and vernacular detail that kept me reading. For two solid days, and at the expense of all else, as it were. He manages to fit the tangle of events and characters into a deeply compelling arch that--by some writerly sleight of hand--deescalates into a satisfying ending. Serious skillz. Who could "end" a book on Columbine without leaving us straining for a resolving chord? But Cullen pulls it off. I sincerely hope he writes more books.
Have you read Columbine by Dave Cullen? Also, I'll finish book #32 for the year this week toward my goal. I think I'm a teensy bit behind schedule. What about you?