Reviewed By Ruth Joffre
- Dzanc Books (2019)
- 200 pages
John Englehardt sets the tone of his debut novel Bloomland (winner, 2018 Dzanc Prize for Fiction), in the title of the first chapter: “Be Okay, It Will Be Okay.” In this title, we hear the voice of someone trying to convince themselves that everything will be fine and that the disaster at hand will not mean the end. This slim novel features many different kinds of disasters, both natural and man-made, including tornadoes, date-rape, infant mortality, and more, but the most important of them is the campus shooting around which the plot revolves. It takes place during finals week at Ozarka University in Arkansas. The shooter is a disillusioned young man named Eli who shoots and kills eleven students and one teacher at a campus library. Later, the reader learns that he also killed his friend, from whom he stole the SKS assault rifle used in the shooting. That brings the total body count to thirteen.
A lesser novel might trace the lead-up to the shooting and unravel its aftermath solely through the consciousness of the shooter. Instead, Englehardt fragments the narrative around the shooting, dividing the novel’s fourteen chapters almost evenly between three characters: Eli, the shooter; Eddie, an English instructor whose wife is killed in the shooting; and Rose, who takes Eddie’s creative writing class in her freshman year at Ozarka. Englehardt further complicates the narrative by telling it in the second person, filtering all the experiences of his three main characters through the narrator: an English professor and friend of Eddie’s who reveals partway through the novel that he was Eli’s creative writing professor and that he didn’t raise a red flag when Eli turned in a problematic story. This calls into question both the narrator’s authority and his ability to tell this story accurately. As a middle-aged white academic with little access to the main characters, he couldn’t possibly have witnessed or heard about most of the events in the novel (among them Rose’s rape, of which she tells no one) and therefore couldn’t relate them with the accuracy required for such delicate subject matter. And yet the novel asks readers to suspend their disbelief and allow the empathy in the narration to smooth over this problem.
For the most part, this tactic proves effective. Englehardt masterfully renders the slow unraveling of his main characters, and readers follow him into the depths of grief and toward distant glimmers of hope. After Rose becomes disillusioned with sorority life and the campus culture, she moves off-campus and finds something like healing through work and life with a female portrait photographer. In grappling with his wife’s murder, Eddie becomes obsessed with Eli’s trial and the possibility of justice. Meanwhile, Englehardt expertly traces Eli’s path from the little boy who can’t cope with his mother’s accidental death to the disaffected youth who enacts pain on others for no real reason other than that he has the power to. This path, in its crudest form, becomes the mythos of Eli the mass murderer—the story that the media tells about a troubled young man deformed by grief.
It’s this story of Eli the troubled youth—in its most dramatic and carefully positioned form—that Eli’s lawyer spins in court. During the trial, the defense argues that Eli isn’t evil; he’s just broken. That he isn’t a domestic terrorist; he’s just emotionally stunted. It’s an easy story in the sense that readers will no doubt have heard it on the news many times before, but no one believes it, least of all Eli. In distancing Eli from the “troubled youth” rhetoric of the media and the courts, Englehardt subtly critiques the society that created and enabled Eli. It’s dangerous, the novel seems to argue, to focus all of your attention on a shooter and not on the impact that society and the shooter can have on each other. This fundamental belief informs the novel’s unique voice and structure, which results in a narrative that refuses to accept any easy answers to the questions of why Eli kills thirteen people and how those impacted by the shooting are expected to heal in the wake of such monumental tragedy.
If the novel has one major failing, it’s that the answers it does provide do not take into account the realities of the mass shooting epidemic or of gun violence in the United States. In an era when domestic terrorists like Dylann Roof can be arrested by officers without incident while unarmed African Americans like Botham Jean and Atatiana Jefferson are killed for no reason in their own homes by police officers, many readers may expect a novel about a mass shooting to discuss race and the inherent racism that allows white domestic terrorists like Eli to be arrested peacefully while innocent civilians are murdered without second thought. The novel doesn’t do this. The closest it gets to addressing the problem is during Eli’s arrest. The police officers’ actions are described as “cold, recited, and gentle,” and in the use of the word “gentle” Englehardt appears to be pointing a finger at a society that has allowed this disparity in the treatment of whites and African Americans by police to go uncorrected. But he doesn’t quite point hard enough, because there’s no other mention of this and readers are left to fill in the social context and outrage. This omission diminishes the novel’s power and limits its ability to comment on today’s mass shootings. Ultimately, Englehardt’s Bloomland is a flawed but beautifully written meditation on power and how individuals attempt and fail to take control of their own lives.
Ruth Joffre is the author of the story collection Night Beast, which was longlisted for The Story Prize. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Kenyon Review, Lightspeed, Pleiades, Gulf Coast, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. Her months-long interview series with the authors, editors, and curators of craft books and resources can be found online at the Kenyon Review blog. She teaches at Hugo House in Seattle.