Book review: 'Newtown: An American Tragedy'

Los Angeles TimesDecember 21, 2013 

  • Nonfiction

    Newtown: An American Tragedy

    Matthew Lysiak

    Gallery, 288 pages

Adam Lanza was, by all accounts, a strange child.

Matthew Lysiak’s “Newtown: An American Tragedy” tackles the challenge of profiling the troubled young man, who killed 20 children and six adults in a Connecticut elementary school last year. As an adolescent, Lysiak tells us, Adam’s baseball teammates found it amusing when he was hit by a pitch – they knew he suffered from a form of sensory deprivation and couldn’t feel pain.

At age 4, Adam got his first gun. The boy who wouldn’t allow himself to be touched “liked the feel of the gun in his hands.” His mother, who had been told that he suffered from Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, was thrilled to see him out in the woods with another boy, shooting at targets.

“There was a weirdness about him,” a Cub Scout leader tells Lysiak. But with a gun in his hand, Adam was different. When Adam held a gun, “he could really focus and in no time he became a good shot.”

His crime, among the most heinous in U.S. history, demands a serious study of what transformed an oddball into a killer. Such a work might also serve as a cathartic retelling of the massacre’s assault on a community’s psyche. Unfortunately, “Newtown: An American Tragedy” isn’t trying to be that kind of book.

Instead, “Newtown” is a slapped-together mishmash of information, much of which has already been extensively reported. Lysiak covered the events for the New York Daily News, and “Newtown” feels like the work of a reporter emptying his notebook in a rush to complete a book by the first anniversary of the Dec. 14 tragedy.

A stiff writing voice is one of the book’s many problems. Another is the author’s apparent inability to distinguish normal teenage behavior (millions play video games and don’t become killers) from the seemingly psychotic depths to which Adam Lanza descended in his final years.

Lysiak says in the preface that he conducted “hundreds” of interviews. But he manages only a frustratingly thin portrait of the woman at the center of the story – Lanza’s mother, Nancy, who was also his first victim.

Lysiak’s most important source on Nancy’s thinking is a series of emails she wrote to a friend. But he doesn’t do much more than report Nancy’s repeated complaints about her son’s condition without trying to uncover the deeper truths about their relationship.

“It’s so hard to pull him out of his own little world,” Nancy wrote in one email, not long after a high school teacher had discovered gruesome drawings of corpses that hinted at Adam’s disturbed inner world. “Still searching for that healthy balance of pushing him hard enough while not pushing him too hard.”

In the end, Nancy started to give up on her son, especially as he reached his 20th birthday.

“Newtown” is at its most compelling when recounting the horrors that unfolded during the five minutes Adam Lanza spent shooting inside Sandy Hook Elementary. Lysiak captures the terror felt by teachers and children and the cruelty of Lanza’s actions with descriptions that are spare and chilling but in no way gratuitous.

Lysiak struggles, however, as he attempts to give voice to the larger meaning of the tragedy. It’s hard to fault him for this. Perhaps we’re simply too close to that violent day to have much perspective about it. After all, Dave Cullen spent a decade writing “Columbine,” the best book yet about America’s epidemic of mass shootings. In 10 more years, maybe another writer will tackle the tragedy of Sandy Hook Elementary and get closer to the truths it has to teach us.

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