AN ANTI-PILGRIM’S PROGRESS
The Columbine Pilgrim
Andy Nowicki, Counter Currents, San Francisco, 2011, pb, 107pps
Andy Nowicki is a self- described “dissident reactionary malcontent” Catholic – and his second novel is an eloquent and original examination of the enduring effects of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre.
The excellently-delineated and aptly named Tony Meander is an intelligent but dysfunctional 33 year old (one cannot really think of him as ‘a man’) who finds himself increasingly identifying (reluctantly) with the murderers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Like him, they were clever boys who were accordingly bullied at school. Like him, they dammed up their resentment until it overtopped their levees. They eventually returned to the school where they had suffered (or felt they had suffered) and killed 13 and wounded 21 people before shooting themselves as if participating in some Grand Guignol production. The book (three quarters of which is entitled “Prologue”) is spent wondering whether Tony will emulate them in this too.
Before that, we leap-frog back to Tony’s schooldays to understand what has pushed him unprepared and virtually penniless onto a plane to Littleton, Colorado one icy April to visit the place which has long stalked his solitary soul. We see a sensitive and shy boy who is often picked on by buffoonish “jocks” encouraged by giggling girls – a boy both physically cowardly and intellectually audacious, hungry for meaning in a culture which offers none for someone like him –
I need something real, substantial, tangible, effable. I’m tired of living inside my head, looking at words on a computer screen. I’m a man, not a username.
The scarred schoolboy takes refuge in history, and the more extreme the anecdotes and ideologies the more he revels in them. He thrills to his history teacher’s vivid descriptions of the airborne heads of French aristocrats flying from the blade of the guillotine, becomes a Marxist and finds Mein Kampf sickly exciting. After wide if not wise meandering through the tangled thickets of Nietzsche and Marx and Nietzsche’s debtor Hitler, Tony detects an all round unsatisfying superficiality –
All of these ‘people’ were useless, soulless, shallow walking dead…they had no real substance.
From here, it is a short step to his eventual appraisal of the majority as “excrement in the guise of humanity” who could (and increasingly should) be
…vaporized, incinerated, leaving me alone…the mythic Ishmael of this doomed flying Pequod, emerging unscathed through the flames like gold through a refiner’s fire.
By the time we meet Tony, almost the only thing that matters to him is the “Me” in Meander as he wanders mutteringly, gliding in and out of rationality, simultaneously contemptuous and envious, vain and self-loathing. He is a sociopath-going-on-psychopath, beset by people he doesn’t recognize as real except insofar as they can wound him, doomed to dwell with all these substandard sensates in a country of shadows (“this wasn’t actually Denver; it only looked like Denver”). He finds validation and encouragement online, listening to black metal and having self-pitying exchanges with alienated avatars elsewhere.
The only thing still tethering Tony to the earth is paradoxically a relict Christianity, a fear that if he does what he burns to do, he really might end up in Hell. But as he progresses away from the Celestial City, this moral guy-rope is fraying – “I had entered the realms of the God-forsaken.” God actually becomes an abuser – “What choice had Mary when she was raped and impregnated by God?” He ends this train of thought logically, and like his favourite French Revolutionists remodels the pantheon of all previous generations to include a new central deity – himself/Himself, like Christ a 33 year old apparent ingénue and virgin. “Put your nails in me; take me down the road to Golgotha” he whimpers pathetically as he drifts through the Mojave of his mind.
His last connection with a ‘normal’ person is when a Cuban cab-driver with the most appropriate possible name takes an avuncular interest –
…he seemed to appraise me with a kind of pity and compassion, the kind of look a doctor would give a man after telling him he had a fatal disease. ‘Take care, amigo’ he said, sombrely. ‘Be good’. Then Jesus was gone, and I was alone.
Nowicki’s didactic message is that all the cults of the last 150 years – wills to power, supermen, nationalism, racial supremacism, class war, socialism, self-gratification, egalitarianism, consumption – cannot compensate for the absence of a transcendent faith which both organizes people on earth and fixes their minds on something more than the mundane. When Jesus is gone, we are all alone, is his contention. In societies which have rejected tradition without offering anything more compelling, an increasing number of Meanders manqué are compelled to wander lonely and lost in a windswept wilderness, cursing fate and calling down plagues on all perceived Philistines. His reaction to 9/11 is emblematic of what would once have been called moral imbecility –
Did your heart not swell in your chest when you beheld those structures, supposedly so indestructible, collapsing like Tinker Toys?
In his evocations of the alleged delights of death-dealing
We burn into an alien sky at light-speed, destiny-bound, singing an angry, terrible, joyous song out of one shared mouth
Nowicki communicates some of the likely emotions of all killers in all times, from 9/11 to Columbine and so back through a gory gallery of kamikazes, janissaries, fuzzy-wuzzies, Assassins, Thuggees, Golden Hordes, Einsatzguppen and Berserkers. Like them, he wants to create mounds of skulls as his meaningful monument – believing it is much better to be unspeakable than to be unknown.
Yet Tony is not in any kind of tradition. The uncomfortable fact is that, despite his extremism, in his influences, immaturity, inadequacy, self-obsession, passion for publicity and rejection of “bourgeois, bogus middle-class hypocritical morality” Tony is in many respects an ultra-modern. As one of his teachers later recalls,
Hell, Tony was a liberal! He was against war, against discrimination
Like the 9/11 killers, Tony’s ruthless rejection of modernity was shaped by very recent history and couched in ironically modernist terms.
After the cordite of Chapter 1 dissipates, we see that Tony’s revenge-tragedy has ended inconclusively. He may have exacted retribution on a few of the pests of his past, but these had become in their own ways as pitiable as their “avenging angel”. His apotheosis from zero to zero has achieved nothing, and the killings are seized upon by observers to further sectional obsessions – gun control, internet control, speech control. ‘angry white male’ and ‘hate crime’ control – with the causes never analyzed, much less addressed. We are compelled to conclude that there will be more geeks with Glocks going out from feculent chatrooms to irrupt into the only kind of immortality most of us can now imagine. We are left with just one tiny hint of possible good coming out of all the harm Tony does – and even that contains a hint that the sad story may be reprised in a still to be written Chapter 2. Somewhere out there on the edge but also among us, there are almost certainly more Meanders, whining and waiting – perpetual victims-turned-victimizers, nerds who would be gods.
This article first appeared in the New English Review in 2011