John Englehardt’s new novel, Bloomland, challenges readers to live and relive a mass shooting at a fictional southern university from three perspectives. Readers follow Eddie, an adjunct composition instructor who loses his wife in the shooting, Rose, a young woman attending the college but not in the library during the violence, and Eli, the shooter himself. The story goes beyond common tropes of school shootings to explore in detail how trauma affects both individuals and their communities. Bloomland is an intense read that holds little back and offers a way to understand school shootings through empathy, an angle that the news media often fails to deliver in their rush to politicize massacres.
Before delving into the author’s powerful realism, it is necessary to address the novel’s narrative perspective, if only to explain future quotations in this review. Nearly the entire novel is in second person. There are a few flashes of first person that reveal the narrator to be Dr. Bressinger, a professor at the college who taught Eli, and a friend to Eddie. It’s unclear how the narrator gains omniscient insight into the characters’ minds, especially Rose, who he does not seem to know, but the narration doesn’t encourage us to question Bressinger and the problem of insight does not significantly impact the storytelling.
The novel begins with Rose, a young woman from a very low income past who has managed to find her way to sorority life at Ozarka University, home of the Raccoons. At first, college greets Rose with the promise of change and forward movement: “This is how you erase your grief, by not looking back. Your happiness feels epiphanic. Your depression had been like having your hand stuck inside the malicious-looking jaw of a taxidermied animal, one that, for your entire life, you thought was real.” However, Rose soon discovers that her past puts her at odds with her upper-class peers. She suffers from imposter syndrome and struggles to fit in. Absent during the shooting, Rose’s peripheral relationship to the violence shows how her world still changes dramatically. Is she a victim? If not, how should she relate to victims? Though struggle to find herself is deeply complicated by the shooting, but Englehardt paints a portrait of a young woman whose days are dominated by immediate concerns, material, and emotional. That she takes up photographing dead babies in a hospital with a friend pushes the novel’s deep mournfulness quite far. If her character was presented with any less finesse, the novel could risk becoming mired in depression, but Rose discovers that suffering can be transformative in a way that helps move her, and readers, to a better place.
Rose’s struggles to fit in and find her place at Ozarka are paralleled in Eli, the shooter, who also feels isolated and ostracized from the community. Compared to Rose and Eddie, who feel complete and authentic in their roles, at times Eli seems a bit constructed from profiles of mass shooters—socially and sexually inept, deeply scarred by routine rejection and existential realizations, and behaviorally awkward in ways that burst with pathology in hindsight. At one point, when Dr. Bressinger is giving Eli feedback on a story he wrote in class, the professor explains his student’s inner state, saying “… you’ve tumbled down into a familiar pit, where all that can be confirmed is how little other people understand about you. Your life stands alone in its unbearable uniqueness.” The novel spends time adding depth to Eli prior to the massacre he carries out in the library and following his trial as he’s in prison, but, like a real school shooter, his connections between motive and action remain opaque. The chapter depicting the shooting from Eli’s perspective is graphic, unnerving and surreal. Englehardt does not belabor the violence, limiting the event to only three pages of the novel. Still, readers with previous violent trauma may find the shooting difficult to read.
Eddie’s story explores the transformations incited by loss. When we meet Eddie, we learn about his life with his wife, Casey, and the challenges they face feeling fulfilled in their marriage. They have different backgrounds, hobbies, and tastes. They have different patterns of living and different sources of happiness. When Eli kills Casey, the novel turns from an exploration of a mature to relationship into an intricate and demanding portrayal of loss and grief. Without Casey, Eddie is more than out of sorts. He’s stuck in the middle of understanding a complicated love. His struggle is unresolvable because Casey dies so unexpectedly, leaving so many aspects of their lives open-ended.
Some readers may find that the way the novel addresses Eddie, Rose, and Eli as “you” exhausting. The use of “you” continually interpolates the reader in the role of each character. As a married college writing professor, sometimes I wasn’t motivated to pick the book up if I knew I was reading a section about Eddie, as they contain powerful mourning sequences such as, “You keep hoping 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.” The second person commands the reader to engage with the characters’ emotions and feelings in ways that first or third person would not. I found imagining the violent death of my partner and my subsequent grief overwhelming at times. It’s almost like the book asks you to role play Eddie, Rose, and Eli. The distance between the reader and characters feels narrow. That’s both praise for the author and, potentially, a trigger warning for some readers.
Bloomland is a powerful, ambitious novel that bravely takes on one of the most perplexing, terrifying, and uniquely American phenomena—the school shooting. The novel won the Dzanc Books Prize for Fiction, a reflection of both craft and thematic relevance. One can only hope future readers will pick up Englehardt’s novel to understand an idiosyncratic period of our history when we abjured our safety and the lives of our children. For now, perhaps Eddie and Rose and their suffering will indict us through empathy so that we work toward a nation where Bloomland is truly fiction.
Bloomland, by John Englehardt. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Dzanc Books, September 2019. 200 pages. $26.95, hardcover.
Eric Aldrich is a writer and an English professor at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona. He’s had short fiction in various publications, most recently the Manifest West anthology from Western Press Books and The Worcester Review, as well as work forthcoming in Weber: The Contemporary West.