(Ann Arbor, MI: Dzanc Books, 2019)
There’s rarely a time when one can write about a novel dealing with a mass shooting in the United States without one or more real-life incidents freshly in the news. The media narrative starts with confused initial reports, followed by panic, helicopters, a showdown or a chase, weeping and trauma, flowers and stuffed animals, and accompanied by, or on a parallel track with, rhetoric from politicians, activists, and gun enthusiasts. A plethora of images and an overabundance of talk on the many issues connected to brutal and largely preventable killings thanks to legally and illegally purchased weapons fill newspapers and emanate from radios, televisions, and on social media for a few days or a week, until the next incident takes over. For those reasons, writing a relatively non-polemical debut novel about a student who shoots others at his campus would be difficult to do, but John Englehardt, in Bloomland, has achieved this feat.
His book follows Rose, Eddie, and Eli, as well as the shadowy narrator whose identity is slowly revealed. Rose, whose early life was changed by a tornado that killed family, is a student at “Ozark University, a flagship state school tucked away against one of the oldest mountain ranges in North America,” and is there primarily for safety’s sake. The mountains at her back are meant to protect against life-threatening winds, but they are no barrier from rape and, later, the effects of Eli’s murderous rampage “with a modified Chinese-type SKS assault rifle.” Eddie is an English professor whose “teaching style is one of controlled outrage, directed at everything except the students sitting before him, whom he attempts to ‘level with.’” He loses his wife in the massacre. These three figures intersect now and then, through the narrator and due to the eventual trial, but Bloomland is more concerned with presenting their disparate lives.
The saddest life doesn’t appear to be Eli’s, whose trajectory is known from the first pages; instead, that malign honor is awarded to Rose who experiences what, unfortunately, is too common, a personal attack from someone who struck her as friendly. Most of the rest of her tale is about her slow recovery (as much as that is possible) as she searches for a healthier life with a positive purpose. Eddie suffers from the death of his wife, but in Bloomland’s honest appraisal of human nature the narrator isn’t entirely fond of him, friends though they are, and makes jokes about Eddie’s “thin, flyaway hair.” It’s the closest he comes to criticism, but the remarks pop up enough times to indicate a suppressed and passive negative assessment. Casey Bishop is treated with more care, most likely because she’s dead, but perhaps because she comes across as nice. The narrator may feel some envy towards Eddie in this regard. As with all portraits of the living and the dead, subjectivity comes into play, and what a reader is told has to be interrogated. Englehardt is playing with a good idea: show that Eddie and Eli, the two dominant men, are both weak and appear as losers (though Eli is more this by far). The point may be that those in positions of power, small though that power might be for a new professor in an out-of-the-way university, are as swiftly and easily crippled as those who enter with little, as Eli does.
That absence of favourtism on the part of the narrator is complemented by his slight meanness. He can be generous to Eddie without being completely kind about him, and he wonders if speaking differently to Eli about the story he wrote for a class would have changed anything. After giving a piece of creative writing advice — “Hate has this way of refusing to accumulate more knowledge” — the narrator says:
It’s one of my favorite pieces of advice, one that most working teachers repeat to infinity. But for many years, I will picture what you saw when you watched me say this. And each time I do, I will see a smug professor who thinks he has all the answers, whose search for empathy is also a desire for control, whose constant lecturing has turned his mouth into a door that swings open so freely it has lost its function.
But for the moment, you let me believe I’ve been helpful.
Most noteworthy about this novel, and what helps it rise above a slight over-reliance on each character having several significant epiphanies, is its lack of sentimentality and sensationalism. Characters die (it’s understandable if this or that reader might prefer Eddie had been gunned down and Casey left alive), a community grieves, a town suffers a tremendous shock, “Barbara Walters comes out of retirement to interview the father of the shooter on primetime television,” family lives are disrupted permanently, and the word tragedy is used so often and so indiscriminately that its meaning is bleached out. The been-there, done-that aspect to the event, which Englehardt chooses not to depict in gory detail, defies Eli’s fervent wish to leave an indelible mark on the world. At the most he has affected the present and future lives of certain individuals and a somewhat wider circle, but his actions are rendered almost indistinct with each shooting that resembles his or that his resembles. Instead of tragedy, then, there is present a weary melancholy, which is reflected in Eddie’s reach to the heavens for comfort:
You’re crying. You tell yourself you can’t be separate from God, because God is just a comfortable bedtime story. It doesn’t work. You keep hoping that your faith will return, because if God isn’t out there waiting in the beyond, then you have to assume that Casey isn’t, either. Disbelieving feels like losing her all over again.
This captures the jumbled and jangled liberally-educated mind, a mind that, as mentioned, is filled with “controlled outrage” but now searches for a rationale behind life and death and the peace required to deal with hard blows.
By the final page of Bloomland there is a palpable feeling that the loneliness and displacement that Eli could not cope with are not far removed from Rose’s anguish due to her history or the loss of purpose and vitality that Eddie faces as a widower. It might be John Englehardt’s point to indicate quietly that anyone alienated from family and a caring society could do what Eli did.
| | |
Jeff Bursey is a novelist, short-story writer, playwright, and literary critic. His publications include Verbatim: A Novel (2010; paperback edition 2018), Mirrors on which dust has fallen (2015), and Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (2016).