Before Columbine or any of the other recent school shootings that have prompted a national debate on firearms and Hollywood and the state of America's youth, there was Simon's Rock. On Dec. 14, 1992, a student named Wayne Lo went on a random shooting rampage at the small college in Great Barrington, Mass. When it was over, a security guard and several students were wounded; a professor and an 18-year-old student named Galen Gibson were dead.
Now, nearly seven years after Galen was killed, his father, Gregory Gibson, has written ''Gone Boy: A Walkabout.'' And, while it's hard not to view the book through the prism of the current uproar over school shootings, ''Gone Boy'' is actually relevant and engaging for reasons other than its accidental publication date. In fact, ''Gone Boy'' is mercifully devoid of political polemics or grand pronouncements on what's wrong with kids today. Instead, Gibson, an antiquarian bookseller and first-time author, has produced a poignant, insightful and admirably honest chronicle of a father's attempts to make sense -- in both large and small ways -- of his son's murder.
As a narrative, ''Gone Boy'' is a real-life detective story. While there's no doubt about who killed Galen, the police investigation of the shootings and Wayne Lo's subsequent trial -- in which he was found guilty on two counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison -- don't provide Gibson with the full story of his son's murder. ''I had a story with characters and events but nothing connecting them,'' he writes. So Gibson sets out on his ''walkabout'' to fill in the blanks.
At first Gibson focuses on the administrators of Simon's Rock College, which is affiliated with Bard College, and their possible culpability in Galen's murder. Through his own interviews with students and staff, depositions taken in a civil suit he filed against those administrators (Simon's Rock's insurance companies, he says, eventually settled for an undisclosed sum) and reams of evidence gathered by the police and the District Attorney, Gibson paints a damning picture of the college's failure to intervene before Lo went on his murderous rampage. Lo, in his time at Simon's Rock, had given off a number of warning signs that he might be prone to violent behavior; a few weeks before the shootings he had threatened one school official by claiming that he had ''the power to bring the college to its knees.''
But on the morning of the shootings, college administrators, after some initial hesitation, allowed Lo to pick up a suspicious package from an outfit called Classic Arms that had arrived for him in the college mail room. The parcel contained ammunition for a rifle Lo had bought at a nearby gun shop. That evening a friend of Lo's, after calling campus security and getting no answer, anonymously called the residence director of Lo's dorm, with whom Lo had had several run-ins, and warned her that Lo ''has a gun and will hurt someone or himself . . . tomorrow.'' But instead of calling the police, or even calling the campus security director at home, college administrators decided to take matters into their own hands. They evacuated the residence director and her family from the dorm. A couple of administrators planned to question Lo, but before they could, the shooting started.
After documenting what he views as the college's negligence, Gibson turns his attention to the gun Lo used, a cheap Chinese semiautomatic rifle called an SKS. He visits the gun store where Lo bought the weapon and meets with the store's proprietor. He tracks down the gun's previous owner, who demonstrates the kind of modifications Lo performed on the gun. Eventually Gibson views the gun itself, and the object becomes thoroughly demystified: ''It seemed an oddly insubstantial thing to have displaced so many lives,'' he writes.
Finally, Gibson focuses on the enigmatic Wayne Lo. At his trial, Lo's lawyers presented an insanity defense for their client -- Lo had told psychiatrists that God had commanded him to carry out the shootings -- but even though this defense was deemed insufficient by the court, Gibson realizes that ''it was clear that something had gone wrong with Wayne.'' Gibson tries to find out what. He interviews the friend of Lo's who made the anonymous call on the night of the shootings. He talks to the two psychiatrists Lo's lawyers relied on for the insanity defense. As a last step, Gibson and his wife meet with Lo's parents. Gibson can only conclude that, despite what the jury decided, Lo was ''indeed truly, deeply crazy'' and that what went wrong with him will forever remain ''a terrible mystery, a holy mystery.'' But in the end, Gibson writes, ''my inability to understand became its own kind of understanding.''
Some of the more dramatic parts of ''Gone Boy'' -- like the meeting with the Los or the visit to the gun store -- made me wonder whether Gibson's ''walkabout'' was motivated by a ''search for the truth'' or, rather, a search for grist that would make a good book. But the understated, graceful way in which Gibson renders those episodes demonstrates that he's not after the sensational. Indeed, Gibson's motives are usually quite clear. At the beginning of his walkabout, he is driven primarily by anger; getting the facts about the college's apparent failure to prevent his son's murder is really about getting even. ''I would assemble an airtight case against the college and send it to my lawyers or get it published in The New York Times,'' he writes. Over time, though, his need for retribution fades, and Gibson realizes that no one -- not the college, not the gun store owner, not Wayne Lo's family -- is really deserving of revenge. He writes: ''There had been a shooting. There was a shooter and he was in jail. Everyone else was a victim.'' At that point, the book becomes an end in itself, ''a single thread of purpose'' that gives Gibson the opportunity to process his grief and reclaim his life.
Just as important, the book offers Gibson a chance to engage in that most important paternal rite: taking pride in his son. Throughout ''Gone Boy'' Gibson can't help boasting, in a rather touching way, about Galen. Recalling a makeshift memorial to Galen at the Simon's Rock student union, Gibson marvels, ''He had so many friends!'' After excerpting a piece of his son's writing, he asks, ''Isn't that impressive?'' When Gibson apologizes to one of his many interview subjects for his persistent questions, the interviewee brushes him off, telling him, ''You're just being a good dad.'' That in the process Gibson has also written an excellent book is so much the better.
Jason Zengerle is the managing editor of The New Republic.