(Image Credit: http://www.netgalley.com)
Paul Auster’s “Bloodbath Nation” is a cathartic jeremiad on an insidious phenomenon that has gripped the world’s biggest economy. The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute, Auster informs us, released some statistical detail which makes for some sobering reading. Annually, close to 40,000 Americans succumb to gunshot wounds, while 80,000 more are left nursing scars, both physical and mental. Thus, on an average, more than 100 Americans are killed and over 200 others injured every day, courtesy a gunman going rogue, or a cop gone crazy or a depressed individual bidding life goodbye. With more than 393 million guns currently possessed by the US populace, there are more firearms in the country than all men, women and children combined.
Auster once said, “memory is the space in which a thing happens for a second time.” In the America of today a part of the space reserved for memory seems to be racked by a tragedy possessing the unfortunate propensity to repeat itself on loop. From Sandy Hook Elementary School to Uvalde; from The First Baptist Church in Sutherland to The Pulse Night Club, Orlando, no lessons are learned, no concrete measures are instituted, and no promise is kept. Candlelight vigils and desk thumping debates are very poor substitutes (if at all) for gun control bills and prophylactic restraints.
Auster hits the nail on its head when he claims that the menace of gun control will forever remain perched above our heads like the proverbial sword of Damocles unless there is a collective and urgent acknowledgement that it represents a grave public health threat. Charting the evolutionary trajectory between cars and guns, two phenomena which symbolize both the trappings of prosperity and the travesty of justice respectively, in America, Auster argues that while there have been constant and incremental enhancements to the safety of passenger transport such as introduction of seat belts, airbags etc, there have been no commensurate benevolent outcomes in so far as the reckless wielding of a gun is concerned.
This dichotomy, according to Auster, can be traced to what he derisively terms “the sublime hypocrisy” characterizing the formation of America as an independent nation. While a marauding militia went about massacring and displacing the native Indians, before seizing their land and laying down colonial roots, the Declaration of Independence, legislated the second Amendment which provided the right to possess and employ firearms. The 2008 Supreme Court decision in the District of Columbia v Heller case, bestowed ultimate universality and legitimacy to gun ownership by interpreting that the rights to own a weapon, as postulated by the Second Amendment was not just restricted to the military or the law enforcement agencies but to every other individual who called America, home. Some weak restrictions that forbade the use and firing of a firearm within the confines of educational, medical and religious institutions stayed obfuscated by the ramifications of the original and more primary verdict.
Auster recollects the tragic consequences marring his own family as a result of a misused weapon in a nondescript yet powerful manner. A family secret of over half a century is prised open, following a chance encounter by one of Auster’s cousins with a passenger who happens to know Paul Auster’s father and uncles. However Auster’s first eye opening understanding of the damage that could be wreaked by both a weapon and the indiscreet man holding it, takes place when he is on board an Esso oil tanker as a seaman during a six month stint in the merchant marine. Being one of the youngest and the least experienced men on board he soon strikes up a friendship with Lamar, ‘a short, stringy-haired redhead from Baton Rouge with a white, crimson splotch marring the white of his left eye…” Lamar is also an equally inexperienced and soft spoken seaman looking for company. Auster’s conviction in Lamar’s sincerity and outlook is shaken to the bones, when the latter nonchalantly reveals one day that a hobby of his happens to be parking himself on an overpass of the interstate highway, and firing live rounds at cars passing by underneath. Upon questioned by Auster on what would have been the consequence if either a bullet had made contact with a car or a scared driver veering off course, Lamar shrugs and laconically replies, ‘Who knows?”
Auster’s lament is supplemented by brooding images in the form of photographs, courtesy Spencer Ostrander. These pictures are of the sites of mass shootings in upwards of thirty, and spaced over the last few years. Not a single animate being inhabits the pictures. Bleak, isolated, and run down, the structures in sepia colour resemble tired and mute spectators within whose precincts some of the most wanton and incomprehensible mayhem were wreaked by a few deranged individuals.
“Bloodbath Nation” is a grim reminder of an existential crisis staring a nation in the face and a fervent plea to recognise and remedy such crisis instead of adopting an ostrich like approach that consists of burying one’s head in the sand while exposing the rest of the body to every possible danger.
(Bloodbath Nation by Paul Auster, is published by Grove Atlantic and will be available for sale from the 10th of January 2023 onwards.)
Thank you, Net Galley for the Advance Reviewer Copy.