Percy’s (The Dark Net, 2017, etc.) story collection explores a natural world, tired of being misunderstood and threatened by humans, that is finally threatening back.
The humans in these tales are beaten down by the financial collapse, the threat of disease, the mind-numbing routines of their lives; and the wilderness, kept at bay for so long by our construction and our expansion and our money, has begun to creep in at the edges, swallowing those who are lost and stretching, hungry, toward the center of our world. In “Heart of a Bear,” a bear begins to assimilate to human life only to face tragedy and loss that drive him back to the wild. In “Writs of Possession,” an unfinished luxury subdivision becomes the playground for wild animals as the human inhabitants are evicted one by one. There are small offerings of hope: the suggestion that a pair of trespassing children would have been welcomed, fed, and adopted by a homeowner in "Writs of Possession," for instance, or the ending of “The Balloon,” where, in the midst of a deadly pandemic, two misfits may find solace in each other. For the most part, though, these stories echo with paranoia and loss; there is, Percy suggests, a hollow, empty core beneath the trappings of our modern lives. As he describes a main character in “The Uncharted”: “His friends call him a warrior poet. They have misinterpreted his emptiness for depth.” Despite the loneliness and violence of these tales, however, there is icy beauty in Percy’s language, even as he describes depression: “We take Xanax. We take Lorazapam. We take Prozac and Paxil and Zoloft. Dozens of little moons dissolve inside us and make our brains deaden and our hearts fizz. Sometimes we are so sad we do not move.” This beauty redeems the vision of darkness that he offers—held out before us, these words suggest that there is still something worth saving in our broken human existence.
Like modern Grimm fairy tales, the stories in this volume are cautionary and haunting.
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.