Reviewed by Warren Maxwell
A heartrending story about a small community as it hurtles toward a mass shooting
Steven Bradley is the CEO of a crisis management firm. When an old colleague tells him of a mass shooting in a small town mall, he is thrust into the aftermath and must navigate a maze of public grief and political strategy along with the property owner.
The book steps backward in time to trace seven characters through the ordinary and extraordinary events which lead them to the fateful mall foodcourt. Welding individual psychology and the politics of gun violence with a moving story, this searing novel confronts the reality of the United States’ most tragic epidemic.
Emma, a security guard at the Lincoln Mall, is trying to make ends meet so she can rent an apartment and move in with her children. Chris is a local pastor smothered in medical debt after a near-fatal case of COVID-19, and Caitlin is a teenager integrating back into normal life after staying in a psychological hospital for self-harming. Despite bullying at school and at home, Will is trying to hold everything together long enough to graduate high school, and Leah is navigating a relationship with her ex-husband and the plans for their daughter’s birthday. Earl and his wife are getting ready for their daughter’s wedding, and Roger, unemployed living in his mother’s house, is falling deeper into an angry, alienated haze. All of their days seem normal, until things change.
Moving chronologically from the early morning to a violent showdown and its aftermath, alternating chapters inhabit the perspective of each character—revealing the experiential gap separating them as well as their common bonds and struggles that go unspoken. A pervasive sense of loneliness and displacement afflict everyone in this community, but individual and family decisions could not be more different. Caitlin’s family embraces her when they discover she is hurting herself while Will doesn’t receive support at school no matter how much he reports his bully.
Each of the novel’s authors writes a single character, creating continuity, nuance, and an impressive diversity of voices. Combining the eclecticism of a wide-ranging short story collection with an epic sense of inevitability and dread as the day wears on, these eight authors achieve a subtle poetic harmony. Tropes and cliches are engaged (there is a scorned, anti-feminist, overweight incel; a conservative, gun-loving, factory worker; an overbearingly masculine CEO, etc.), but every character is given a protagonist’s space, empathy, and depth. Generalizing labels are undermined, and the true horror of public violence and lost innocence is placed center stage.
Politics are inseparable from this narrative, but its emphasis remains on the travesty that is lost life and the need for constructive help rather than simply placing blame on one group. Readers will find a complex, thought-provoking story about humanity and about modern society’s intractable failures rather than a polemic with prescribed solutions. This book embraces everyone, and as such, makes a case for people coming together against gun violence, loneliness, mental illness, and injustices of every kind.
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