What's the Difference Between You and a School Shooter? squib

In Bloomland, Seattle novelist John Englehardt examines the impacts of a shooting. by Rich Smith

Because we live in the United States, the psychological dimensions of John Englehardt's debut novel, Bloomland, are familiar.

In a small Arkansas college town, a weirdo white guy with psychological issues steals his roommate's semiautomatic rifle, walks into the school library, and murders 12 people.

In high-quality, almost incantatory literary prose, Englehardt's narrator examines the lives of the killer, the victims, the bereaved, the town, and himself in an attempt to find honest answers to frustratingly routine questions: Why did this shooting happen? Who is responsible? And what happens next?

Englehardt's book stands out among many in this genre for its use of the second person. I cannot stand the second person—truly cannot stand it—mostly because of the difference between what I'm doing and what the narrator suggests I'm doing. For example: In the second person, a narrator might say, "You're walking down the street. You see a hot dog stand. You walk up to the hot dog stand and ask for foot-long, no mustard."

But I'm not doing any of that. I'm sitting here reading. I'm trying to slip into a world or mind. I like mustard on my hot dog, and I dislike an author trying to force me to walk a block in his character's idiotic slippers as a shortcut to earning my sympathy and attention. It's a violation.

However, Englehardt's use of the perspective in this book evades my scorn, mostly because it does a lot of work.

Englehardt tells the story from the perspective of Dr. Bressinger, an adjunct writing professor who briefly taught the shooter in class. It's Bressinger who uses the second person. He's the one pretending to know what's inside the head of the student who picks up the Chinese SKS as if he were the killer, or the other student who runs through the snow in his pajamas to see if his girlfriend has been shot.

In this way the book is not "about" the shooting so much as it is "about" the fraught process of using empathy as a tool to discover the motivations of characters and to gain wisdom from events. The move not only cleverly reflects the reader's position, but ultimately embodies in a literary technique the primary concern of the novel, which is, more or less, that any one of us—with the right cocktail of unexamined grief, psychological instability, misogyny, and easy access to guns—could be the shooter.

Aside from landing that literary trick, Englehardt finds surprising details in this tragically typical narrative. He describes first responders noticing cell phones ringing all at once in the pockets of the dead—friends and family members calling to see if their loved one is okay. He describes a huge shed full of donated teddy bears, a pretty big waste-management issue and a poignant symbol of the disconnect between the response to gun violence and the actual needs of the bereaved.

There is very little—if any—humor in the book. So the only thing to balance out the solemnity of Englehardt's enterprise is a kind of enduring sweetness, a nervous curiosity, and a keen eye for describing Arkansas in ways that make the place sound kind of nice actually, all of which make the book worth a read.

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