Gun violence, grief, and the struggle to construct a coherent identity in the funnel cloud of the American absurd.
Rose is a freshman at Ozarka University—a contradictory “land of white mansions” and “lurid binge drinking,” Bible study and date rape—where she is trying to pivot away from her painful childhood (first an EF5 tornado, then a neglectful mother, then a foster home) by remaking herself as a sorority sister, “carefree, upper class, and virtuous by means of…inaccessibility.” Then, during finals week, a student named Eli—a child of loss himself who feels, among other things, “overlooked, disenfranchised, promised one thing and given another”—smuggles a rifle into the crowded library and opens fire. When he’s done, 12 people are dead, and Rose’s anodyne visions, her talent for imitating the absurd, prove a flimsy antidote for the pain. Similarly remade by the shooting is Eddie Bishop, an adjunct writing instructor whose wife, Casey, is both the rebar around which his adult identity was poured (before her, he was the browbeaten replica of his brutally religious father) and one of Eli’s victims. While the media grabs for explanatory scripts (Eli comes from a nonnuclear family! He’s a drug user!) in hopes of conveniently distancing the killer from the rest of us, Englehardt’s characters—Rose, Eddie, and Eli—struggle in a more intimate sphere, a sphere where slogans don’t heal, where confusion is identity, where questions about who you were and are and want to be run like threads through the dark eyelet of Eli’s murderous act. Following each character in alternating second-person chapters—a clever and daring structure in which Eli's creative writing instructor operates as the guiding first-person consciousness at the novel's core—Englehardt’s brilliant and insanely brave debut is a culturally diagnostic achievement in the same way that Don DeLillo’s White Noise and Libra are culturally diagnostic achievements; his sentences are brutal and unflinching and yet mystically humane in the spirit of Denis Johnson’s Angels; and his America is at once beautiful and love-swirled and a kaleidoscopic wreck—a land whose cultural geology mirrors its physical one, routinely generating the “mindless malignancy” of town-wrecking tornadoes and desperate young men with guns.
Hugely important, hauntingly brutal—Englehardt has just announced himself as one of America’s most talented emerging writers.