Books willing to scale events large enough to be named "a national tragedy" all begin with the same maddening question: "What is left to say?" When Atlantic magazine correspondent William Langewiesche published his 2002 book "American Ground," a forensic, dispassionate look at the destruction and removal of the World Trade Center, New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani derided his approach as callously focused on a "heroic engineering project" instead of a "national tragedy that killed 2,797 people." A fresh perspective, certainly, but a moral one? A 2005 career assessment of Langewiesche's work in the anthology "The New New Journalism" praised his approach as making full use of the medium's leading assets. The argument here: The best journalism about over-examined events dilates our collective lens.
Denver reporter Dave Cullen has given himself an equally forbidding challenge with his first book, "Columbine," published just before the 10th anniversary of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado. His strategy is diligence over style and attempts at understanding that can seem reckless instead of brave. "Columbine" is an essential book rather than a good one.
We cannot be sure at what point Cullen chose the Columbine massacre as the nucleus of his career, but the historical record tells us when it chose him. On April 21, the day after the tragedy, he filed one of the first national news stories on the incident, a plainspoken from-what-we-can-tell-now article of 1,087 words headlined "Massacre in Suburban Denver," for Salon.com. Cullen's lauded reporting that spring illuminated what is now gruesome American folklore.
On the morning of April 20, seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into their high school with an arsenal of automatic weapons and began attacking their classmates. In slightly more than an hour, they killed 12 students and one teacher before committing suicide in the school's library. A decade later, the massacre at Columbine remains the deadliest crime ever committed in an American high school.
There have been nearly a dozen books about Columbine published before Cullen's, and a working grasp of a few may unearth similar revisions to the media gospel - of Trenchcoat Mafias, gothy loners and Hitler worship all since disproved. But Cullen correctly assumes they need repeating. His own reporting for Salon concluded in late November 2000. A presidential election, the disappearance of Chandra Levy and the attacks of Sept. 11 quickly pushed aside investigations of why the massacre happened and how it could have been handled better. Columbine would not return to the national debate until 2007, when Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 of his classmates and mentioned Harris and Klebold in his confession. As a result, much of what we hold true about Columbine remains locked in the dark drawer of historical memory, even though efforts like Cullen's show otherwise.
That Cullen wrestled the evidence both available and acquired into a series of reasoned arguments remains "Columbine's" greatest strength. A chapter on the science of psychopathology is outstanding. A concluding passage on the dangers of over-policing teenagers in the name of avoiding violence is equally so.
And yet perhaps the size of the task left Cullen little energy to focus on narrative or aesthetics. Here his efforts seem like document management instead of journalism. Too often his prose is wooden enough to feel copied rather than considered, and attempts to sound casual trip over themselves.
Both Cullen and Langewiesche were on the scene reporting within hours of their respective tragedies and in their books erect an almost architectural narrative from a latticework of reporting, interviews and mountains of official evidence. And yet the binding question "What is left to say?" Cullen answers thoroughly but not well. Would "Columbine" have sacrificed accuracy or comprehensiveness had it been a better read? Which is more important?
There are no good answers.
This review first appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle.
(R) thedailystar.net 2009