blackbirdonline journalSpring 2021  Vol. 20  No. 1
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Review | Bloomland
John Englehardt
Dzanc Books, 2019

spacer Bloomland (Dzanc Books, 2019)

Bloomland by John Englehardt, begins aptly in the midst of an F-5 tornado. The destruction it wreaks and the trauma it causes, in many ways provides the perfect objective correlative for the emotional narrative that follows. Set against the backdrop of the Ozark mountains in a fictional southern town, Bloomland spans two decades and details the lives of protagonists Rose, Eli, and Eddie, pre- and post- a university shooting. Told in the second person, through rotating character-specific chapters, the book centers less on this singular act of violence, and more on the emotional and psychological complexities of its characters, their search for identity, and their mutual want to belong to something greater than themselves.

“Tornados are actually pretty amazing,” one character tells us. “They never hit the same place twice.” A unique atmospheric phenomenon, tornados exist between two realities—earth and sky—and are formed by a collision of contrasting forces: warm and cold air. The resulting funnel cloud while hollow at its center, destroys everything in its path, “indifferent to what suffers.”

This concept of straddling two realities, of hovering between connection and disconnection, is a central motif in Bloomland. Each character struggles to reconcile their ideals of “normalcy” with society’s expectations of them. Rose, a college freshman, joins a sorority in an attempt to outrun her traumatic childhood. Eli, unable to “find a place in the world for a sad young man,” retreats inward until he finally resorts to violence. Eddie, a grieving professor (his wife a victim of the shooting) questions his marriage, the concept of love, and the reasons we seek out relationships.

Throughout the book, storms, severe weather, and the changing of seasons are common recurrences, often used to personify a characters grief. For Rose, “it’s February and winter still has [her] by the throat.” For Eli, his shift from passive to active aggressor is marked by “week-old snow [ . . . ] icing over again in the absence of the sun.” And for Eddie, an ice storm “feel[s] like getting soaked by death and never drying off completely,” becoming both a physical and psychological manifestation of his loss.

Englehardt calls on the natural world and the diverse Arkansas landscape to help bring these difficult moments of abstraction to life. In the unnatural calm after the shooting, we watch as “trees shift in silence” and “birds fly upside down and backward.” The openness of the sky becomes “almost sinister” and it feels as if “the whole world is falling backward and erasing itself.” In other moments, “memories explode like a flock of birds from a tree,” a rotten limb cracks and breaks apart “clean and sudden as a gunshot,” and red geraniums transpose, “no longer just [ . . . ] red geraniums, but ones that exist in a new world where even a color carries with it a memory of pain.”

Bloomland is full of these beautiful and exacting details, and Englehardt wields them with an expertise and precision far beyond his years. His language is poetic, the lyricism at once startling and familiar. In his world, “hills stab into the blue sky with their subtle greenness,“ characters yearn to be “calibrated, like a tuning fork,“ and the sky takes on endless shapes and colors defining each scene’s mood.

In the passage where Eli experiences an internal storm, Englehardt’s prose feels harrowing:

As you wait for the storm to arrive, you imagine how the clouds will gather. You see the funnel descend. Everyone runs, crawls under their houses, while barns are ripped apart and splinters of wood stab knifelike into soil. Herds of cattle leave their broken fences behind. Churches spin on their foundations. Giant bugs smash into walls like the whole town is racing down the freeway. But you are not running or hiding. You are presiding over it. You realize you want for everyone together to be torn apart, for their voices to sing and the wind to blow away your life like the extravagant sand castle that it is.

But the storm doesn’t come. The power comes back on, and the lights from the houses and the Super Wal-Mart float companionless in the dark. Soon the sky turns pearly with daylight, and all the green tress and dun-colored apartment complexes stretch into the hills. That’s when it feels like something out there has shifted. The storm you imagined is real, even if it’s only coming from within.

Despite the pattern of grey lingering clouds, Englehardt’s prose and Bloomland’s landscape offer up moments of levity too. When characters leave campus, they take the scenic route. Long stretches of “dirt roads” lead through “undulating hilltops,” “rainwater streambeds,” and “fields of yellow flowers.” They pass small towns “flanked by cemeteries,” “fecund farms,” and “a broken-down truck bulging with weeds.” The picturesque is often interrupted by the grotesque—billboards for “LUMPY’S DEAD ANIMAL SERVICE” or a jeweler’s ad announcing: “BUY A DIAMOND, GET A FREE SHOTGUN!” These interludes are often comical and draw our attention back to the dualities, those contrasting forces, that are ever present in Ozarka.

Academia and industry, science and religion, wealth and poverty, urban and rural. The town is at once, “a 450 acre campus” lined with “white mansions,” and “yellow trumpets of daffodils;” a “Super Wal-mart with a puddled roof top;” and yet still a “Baptist church [complete] with helicopter pad.” It is a place where even the air is contradictory, shifting from the smell of barbecue to chicken shit.

In a passage that imbues absurdity, Englehardt demonstrates Rose’s distress, and reiterates our larger societal dysfunction (i.e., the struggle to make meaningful connections) through the juxtaposition of the natural and the unnatural:

Thunderclouds fill the sky. Streets turn into rivers of rushing water and trash. Umbrellas are useless. Classes canceled. It rains so hard that a quarter mile of the bike trail falls down an embankment. Tree branches cough up onto front lawns like driftwood. So you’re forced to stay inside. You read clickbait articles, watch videos on, sign a petition to shut down SeaWorld. Then you start looking at personal ads. You read through all the desperate paragraphs. The people who ask outright to be saved from their loneliness, . . . They ask, is there life after love? . . . You used to do this for a laugh, but now you see a blazing humanness in their dejection. You want to call these people and give them whatever they want, turn your sadness into a superpower. . . . but you come to your senses [and] keep scrolling, looking for something—you’re not sure what.

Everywhere, Englehardt reminds us of our “blazing humanness,” and our inability to be reduced to a single artificial identity. Through the questions he poses surrounding grief and trauma, the perplexing threads of incipient violence, and his stoic insistence that we, as readers, avoid the easy answers, Englehardt has crafted a narrative that encourages exploration over explanation, which values understanding over sensationalism, and holds most dear, compassion over judgment. It’s a book that reminds us that there are no good or bad characters, just people; caught in the throes of their own raging storms.  

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