American Elegy

The pattern is wearily familiar. A person with a grudge acquires an automatic weapon, exacts his revenge in a deranged killing spree, is shot dead himself, and leaves behind an outpouring of grief, soul-searching, and fiery political rhetoric that lingers in the headlines for days. Before long, the killing is eclipsed by another horror and becomes simply another entry in the dossier of death in America. The combination of legislative inaction, a powerful, endlessly cynical firearms lobby, and a fragmented electorate has produced that sad distinction for which America is known: The nation with the most firearms per capita on earth, its people are ten times more likely to die by firearm than those of any other country.

Rather than parse the origins of our bloody national stalemate, British journalist Gary Younge opts to narrow his focus, and to powerful effect. In Another Day in the Death of America, he chooses an average day—November 23, 2013—and tells the stories of the ten children and teens who were shot and killed in the US over a twenty-four-hour period. The ten narratives both frame and personalize the country's gun-violence scourge, as he recounts the brief lives and deaths of these mostly—though not always—blameless victims. Younge writes in a calm, reportorial tone strikingly at odds with the facts being described, and uses the often searing individual stories as a jumping-off point for deep dives into related phenomena: gang life, gun shows, social media, the structural racism of American society, his own biography as a person of color who spent over a decade in America (he's of Barbadian ancestry), the psychology behind someone running murderously "amok," and our declining cities. Along the way, he offers a granular, deeply depressing portrait of poverty today.

This might sound like someone overseasoning his subject matter with sheer variety. It's not. There's a meticulousness to Younge's approach, a gracefulness to his weave of citation and digression, and a kind of open-handed honesty in his journalistic practice that keeps the reader on track. Plus, he's a gifted writer, whose prose can rise to the nearly liturgical:

And so on this day, like most others, they fell—across America, in all its diverse glory. In slums and suburbs, north, south, west, and Midwest, in rural hamlets and huge cities, black, Latino, and white, by accident and on purpose, at a sleepover, after an altercation, by bullets that met their target and others that went astray. The youngest was nine, the oldest nineteen.

Each of the ten victims is introduced in a different manner, which works to offset some of the repetitiousness of a book whose protagonists' fates are known at the outset. One chapter begins with an interview of the victim's long-suffering behavior specialist. Another opens mid-scene, amid the beeps of a severe-weather warning on Younge's car radio, as he drives to a Michigan town where an eleven-year-old boy lost his life. Yet another starts with a discussion of Zora Neale Hurston, quoting her biographer Valerie Boyd on the difficulty of tracking her subject: "'In 1911 it was relatively easy for someone, particularly a black woman, to evade history's recording gaze. . . . If not legally linked to a man, as daughter or wife, black women did not count in some ways—at least to the people who did the official counting.'"

Younge's point is that what we think of as foundational data—where and when a person was born and died—is far more conditioned by relationships of power and class than we might like to believe. He drives home his message with an anecdote about Hurricane Katrina, recalling how, after the storm struck, and the mostly black underclass was forced onto rooftops and into the city's Superdome, the famously inept head of FEMA, Michael Brown, defended his agency's lack of preparedness by saying, "We're seeing people that we didn't know exist."

A gun show in Shelby, North Carolina, 2010. Brittany Randolph/Flickr

Younge's mandate in this book is, precisely, to bring to life people whose deaths would have otherwise gone mostly unrecorded and unmourned outside the close circle of their friends and family. He identifies the grieving relatives through online obituaries and local news reports and then, with exemplary tenacity, attempts to track them down and interview them, as well as checking the ghostly residues the victims have left behind on social media. Early on, he learns to tread softly when approaching people for interviews: "Talking to the relatives of bereaved children is inherently intrusive. The issue is whether the intrusion is at all welcome. It is no small thing to trust a person you don't know with the story of your dead child. Journalists are not entitled to such stories."

But stories are what anchor this book, and one of them is that of Tyler Dunn, the eleven-year-old who died in an isolated farming community in Michigan. Tyler, an apparently happy-go-lucky child doted on by his family, was hanging out with his good friend Brandon (not his real name) when Brandon's dad, Jerry, left them alone one day in a house bristling with guns. Brandon brought out a rifle to show Tyler and, when putting it away, accidentally shot Tyler in the head, killing him instantly.

From this tragic event, Younge draws several conclusions. The first and most significant is a point repeated both explicitly and by example throughout the book: The free and nearly unregulated circulation of guns in America is directly related to the high rate of gun violence and death. (As Younge says bluntly in the afterword, "This is a book about what happens when you don't have gun control.") The second, related point is that when guns are everywhere, firearm instruction will not necessarily keep children out of harm's way. Younge cites a study in which "pairs of boys age eight to twelve were left alone" in a room while under secret surveillance. They weren't told that a .38 caliber handgun had been hidden in a drawer. While researchers watched through a one-way mirror, three-quarters of the children found the gun, "two-thirds handled it, and one-third pulled the trigger"—all within fifteen minutes. Significantly, 90 percent of the boys had previously received firearm safety instruction.

Though Another Day in the Death of America is not about race per se, race is the undersong heard faintly everywhere in its pages. As Younge writes, "Racism is a hardy virus. . . . For all the ways in which America imagines itself color-blind, the statistics suggest otherwise." To take one example of the many he cites: "Schools in the South are more segregated now than they have been in forty years." Younge sheds a particularly clarifying light on the links between crime and poverty, and how a fog of racialist, if not outright racist, ideology has clouded our discussions of inner-city violence. He describes a conversation on Meet the Press during which Rudy Giuliani intoned, "I find it very disappointing that you're not discussing the fact that 93 percent of blacks in America are killed by other blacks," and then neatly flips the script. "America is very segregated," Younge writes, "and its criminality conforms to that fact. The victims of most crimes are of the same race as those who commit them. Eighty-four percent of whites who are killed every year are killed by whites." As for blacks' somehow abdicating personal responsibility and blaming the system—another beloved talking point of right-wing pundits—Younge finds this to be categorically not the case. "In the scores of interviews I conducted, [the parents] made almost no reference to poverty, racism or other broader structural issues. They focused instead almost entirely on personal responsibility . . . the breakdown in parenting and the absence of basic values being taught in the home."

While obviously sympathetic to their point of view, Younge believes that by blaming "values" for the preponderance of childhood death by gun in America, these parents are missing another important point. "I've always found this line of argument odd," he writes, "because, having been parented in England and been a parent in the United States, I don't think Americans make worse parents than the British or any other nationality. . . . But no other developed Western nation suffers child gun deaths at the level of the United States. It's not even close."

Again and again, Younge brings us back to the larger issue: Guns, as they've saturated our society, have coarsened it, changed its character, and accelerated our own worst tendencies. He criticizes the NRA for hijacking the national discourse about guns and, crucially, notes that "those most affected by gun violence—the black, brown, and poor—do not align themselves with the gun control movement." In lesser hands, a book mixing first-person experience, sociological analysis, and the deaths of children by firearms might run the risk of coming off as exploitative, but Younge avoids this by unpacking these interrupted lives with patient empathy. The arguments he builds around those lives are stinging, clear-eyed, and unassailable in their truth—and in their tragedy.

Unsurprisingly, the book is often a tough read. The constant rebooting of our sympathies, chapter after chapter, becomes exhausting, and dread, the emotion the book continually elicits, is not exactly salutary as an extended reading experience. Yet one finishes both grateful and deeply edified. Another Day in the Death of America takes its place in the slender canon of first-rate American witness literature, as it implores us to pay close attention while giving us genuine clarity in return. That it does so at a moment in our history when each of these things is in grievously short supply underlines both its distinction and its necessity.

Eli Gottlieb's most recent novel, Best Boy (Liveright, 2015), won the 2016 Bridge Book Award for fiction.