The stories in Bonnie ZoBell’s What Happened Here are linked by place, all tied to the San Diego community of North Park. The community was made famous by a terrible airplane accident in the 1970s that ended with a passenger plane crashing into the streets of the neighborhood, scattering both mechanical and human debris. This collection is set well after the crash, focused on characters who live in North Park and the figurative shadow of the catastrophe. For most of the characters, the crash is a “ghoulish fringe benefit” of the real estate. For the stories, the crash is a necessary backdrop with influence far beyond the borders of North Park. The stories are haunted by the crash’s echoes, all of them asking: how do we live under threat of disaster?
Many of the stories focus on living under the threat of random disaster: the plane of the crash, sharks in “Sea Life,” the Chupacabra in “A Black Sea,” the nuclear plant in “This Time of Night.” These dangers, real or imagined, force the characters to re-evaluate the lives that remain to them, to choose the people and dreams they will abandon and the ones they will hold tightly.
The title story most directly engages the decades-old airplane tragedy. On the literal level, the residents of North Park gather for a remembrance on the anniversary of the crash midway through the story, creating a central communal event for later stories to touch. On the sentence level, the macaws who haunt the neighborhood shriek, howl, screech, squeal, and scream, a constant disruption and reminder of that terrible night.
The prose also treats body parts, and their positioning, with the same care as the journalists who reported the disaster’s grisly damage. The neighborhood expert on the crash, Archie, points to exactly where corpses, severed limbs, and bits of airplane were scattered up and down their street. Those same body parts figure heavily in the slow-motion disaster of the narrator’s husband, John, in his depression and anger. “John pushed, and Archie’s arms shot upward, dangled,” like the passenger’s arms that hung from the telephone wires. And, when the narrator tries to stop John, “We fell hard on the driveway, hitting a grease spot.” Archie believes the neighborhood is haunted, and the prose agrees with him. Similar aggressive, violent, or bloody imagery haunts the stories, constantly reconnecting the reader to those early gruesome descriptions.
Throughout What Happened Here, the physical dangers vibrate next to social and emotional risks. Such is the case for AIDS-positive Willy and his wife in “This Time of Night.” He resists telling others about his diagnosis because
Then they’ll feel sorry for him and be careful around him and so his life will be over even sooner. Telling people is one of the things Willy and I clash on: the dangers of revealing it versus the dangers of keeping it all inside.
While Willy’s wife panics over nuclear plants, serial killers, and mountain lions, her husband fears very different kinds of dangers. ZoBell has populated North Park with distinct characters, each fending off a different catastrophe, each forced to choose how to continue living in the face of that catastrophe.
Despite these dangers, many of the stories are characterized by a curious lack of urgency. They suffer from either extended time-spans or a lack of clear consequences for character choices and actions. While the collection is peppered with higher intensity stories, especially flights from danger as in “A Black Sea” and “Rocks,” overall it leans toward contemplative, slower-paced fiction that lacks a strong pay-off for the reader.
ZoBell also delights in turns of phrases and details that point to larger themes and characterization. Her smart, careful choices succeed in creating a sense of general threat, but in some instances the clever details are too heavy-handed to be effective. In “Uncle Rempt” in particular, the characters are drawn in broad strokes. Crystal and oxygen purveyor Uncle Rempt has an “elf body” and “a bald spot on his crown shaped like the yin and yang symbol,” while the teen narrator’s overbearing father has hair “which I now realized looked like jail bars.” The controlling, straight-laced Christian men in the narrator’s life are clearly satirical, but the strokes are so broad as to feel simplistic rather than thought-provoking. Characters of other demographics occasionally suffer from similar oversimplifications in the collection.
Overall, the success of What Happened Here is in exploring similar themes from varied, interconnected points of view. The pleasing sense of wholeness between the stories is a rare find in a fiction collection. These pieces speak directly to each other and through each other, and together they form the community of North Park. It’s in that community that characters find relief, however tenuous, from the dangers around them, and ZoBell has wisely made it the heart of her collection.
What Happened Here, by Bonnie ZoBell. Winston-Salem, North Carolina: Press 53. 192 pages. $17.95, paper.
Kelsie Hahn holds an MFA in fiction from New Mexico State University. Her reviews have also appeared in The Collagist, Puerto del Sol, and Necessary Fiction. Her fiction chapbook Responsibility is available from Lit House Press. She lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband, Stephen Cleboski. More at kelsiehahn.weebly.com.