You don’t remember when you started to fear the lone gunman. Now you’re hoping your kids make it to college. It’s the American Dream. When they get there, you worry that “this is what happens instead. A student” — a young white man, most likely — “walks into the library during finals week with a modified Chinese-type SKS assault rifle, then opens fire, killing eleven students and an instructor.”
Such is the existential command of the second-person perspective of “Bloomland,” whose narrator reveals himself to be a college professor, a well-trodden trope. But like Don DeLillo in “White Noise” and R.O. Kwon in “The Incendiaries,” Englehardt finds ample material on a fictional campus, this time in Arkansas at Ozarka University, driving distance from rural communities where four-wheelers flatten the blackberries between diaper middens. Trailer park country, birthing a dying idea of America, where security is just out of reach, “like growing up with an ocean outside of your bedroom window that disappeared when you looked at it.”
The “you” of “Bloomland” feels self-reflexive — a character talking to himself — but it is not. The “you” in this book keeps changing. Sometimes it’s the professor Eddie Bishop, whose wife Casey was the first to die. Other times, it’s the tornado survivor and sorority pledge Rose. And, finally, the “you” is the shooter, Eli, who lost his mother as a child, a tragedy that media accounts seize upon in collective desperation to find an individualized explanation for recurrent mass murder.
Cycling between these characters observed and addressed, “Bloomland” juxtaposes the proximate with the predator, intermingling their perspectives until the flickering becomes a bloody tapestry of our beleaguered nation. The “I” of this commentary is Dr. Bressinger, Eddie’s friend and colleague, from whose perspective emerges frankly impossible knowledge of his fellow protagonists’ lives. But Bressinger acts as a kind of arbitrator, a humanistic “I” that softens the gaze of the reader even while invoking the aftermath of violence.
Eli’s dissociation produces an overwhelming compulsion “to understand something by destroying it,” whereas Rose recovers from a childhood in foster care, after losing her grandmother and brother in a tornado and her mother to addiction, by making it into a sorority where she can perform the happiness she always wanted. Triggered by the shooting’s effect on campus, Rose falters in her newly forged community but nonetheless finds a way to embrace the unheralded misfortunes of being born.
Winner of the Dzanc Books Prize for Fiction, “Bloomland” details a void in Eli that is also present in Rose, even before she is made to suffer the weight of male entitlement. After, “it doesn’t seem like anything terrible has happened, even though everything is wrong.”
Can there be a surer way to describe living in the numbed embrace of the modern news cycle of massacres — more mass shootings than days thus far this year — “getting soaked by death and never drying off completely,” hoping that “in time you will learn how to cope?”
We must heal ourselves in real life. The beauty of literature teaches “that the trauma you go through can, if anything, prepare you to understand someone else.” But there are risks to empathy, not the least of which is the uneasy sensationalism of a shooter whose sole contribution is the destruction of other people’s futures.
In “The Source of Self-Regard,” Toni Morrison demanded that we “know the difference between fever and the disease.” Speaking to Eli, and through him, to the reader, Bressinger narrates, “And if there’s any way I can avoid sounding like your apologist, it’s to say the one thing that will enable your ambush is how deeply normal it is, this mask you’ve been taught to wear.”
In this framework, shooters are the fever, and the disintegration of our familial and community connections is the disease.
Sad? Soldier on. Take a selfie. Such are the encouragements of rampant individualism.
That facade — “evidence of a rift” — haunts the face of every character in “Bloomland,” including Eddie, who grieves the double loss of Casey — first to the long decay of their marriage and finally to Eli’s depraved actions.
Like his former student, Eddie longs for “an era of comfort and connection, before the people he loved turned into long corridors he was told not to enter. It makes you wonder if, all this time, maybe you and Eli were missing the same thing. Maybe you’re different from each other only in degree, not in kind.”
As a country, we wait with enforced resignation for “an absence that lives,” our entire electorate complicit in that “moment in the library when the first cell phone started ringing, then another,” whole campus buildings “buzzing with parents and friends calling these kids who weren’t going to answer.”
Scroll through the headlines and read about the next preventable massacre. Watch the hopes and prayers and guns flow freely.
You can hear those cellphones ringing. You hope you’re not the one who dials.
Kristen Millares Young is the author of “Subduction,” a novel forthcoming from Red Hen Press on April 14, 2020.
By John Englehardt
Dzanc. 192 pp. $26.95