That tragedy may befall us regardless of how sensibly we conduct our lives is a reality almost too unsettling to contemplate. So we instinctively try to rationalize random catastrophes. It is this need to find a cause for every horrifying happening that gives rise to Tom Zoellner’s A Safeway in Arizona, which examines the circumstances leading up to (although not necessarily responsible for) the January 8, 2011, massacre near Tucson that left six people dead and U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords gravely wounded with a bullet through her brain.

Zoellner is a longtime friend of Giffords, whom he met when he was reporting for the Arizona Republic and she was beginning her first term in the Arizona House of Representatives. After leaving the newspaper, Zoellner campaigned for Giffords in her successful runs for Congress. He wonders here if there is something about his home state that inspired and enabled 22-year-old Jared Loughner to clash so violently with Giffords that chilly morning at the Safeway supermarket. Did it have something to do with Arizona’s institutionalized enthusiasm for guns, the apocalyptic rants of its politicians, its economic “starvation” of publicly funded mental health services—or could it be attributed solely to Loughner’s paranoia?

While Zoellner arrives at no single and satisfying explanation of why the shooting occurred, he does provide an insider’s view of Arizona’s peculiar appeal to people eager to re-invent themselves (among them Giffords’ grandfather, a Lithuanian Jew who changed his name from Akiba Hornstein to Gif Giffords and then made a fortune selling tires). Zoellner also dwells on the tendency of Arizonans to insulate themselves from each other instead of striving to form cohesive communities. And he spotlights such disruptive, larger-than-life personalities as Joe Arpaio, the hard-nosed, publicity-seeking sheriff of Maricopa County; Tucson talk-show provocateur Jon Justice; and Russell Pearce, the author of Arizona’s draconian anti-immigration law. (Pearce was voted out of office in a special election after this book went to press.)

Compelling as his probing of the Giffords shooting is, Zoellner’s greatest service here is illuminating the darkest corners of this sun-drenched seedbed of rugged individualism.

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