192 pages, $17.95
Review by David S. Atkinson
Some people believe each of us is ultimately alone in life, alone with our dreams, fears, and the ghosts that haunt us. However, others insist our individual problems are just variations on what others experience and we are more connected to each other than we can possibly imagine. I found myself thinking about these two positions while reading What Happened Here by Bonnie ZoBell.
This book is a linked collection of stories and a novella centering around a neighborhood in North Park, San Diego where PSA Flight 182 crashed horribly in 1978. The crash was long ago, but the characters in the various pieces reflect upon the tragedy, mysteriously affected in some way, while going about their own lives, lives filled with their individual problems and hopes:
The accident was posed to me as a ghoulish fringe benefit by the previous owner of my house. I’d be able to say I resided in a place where the tragedy had occurred….I worried about how the annihilation of these bodies that landed on my property would affect me. Would I feel engulfed by doom simply living on this patch of earth? I’d had bouts of depression. I didn’t need to think about dead families sprawled on my back patio, even if it had been decades. But while I’d never be cured of this incessant disease, my own particular strain had been restrained after too many years of therapy and a lifetime of commitment to antidepressants. My husband’s had not.
There is a great deal of variety in the various stories and characters in What Happened Here. Lauren, the female protagonist in “Nimbus Cumulus,” has a promising career as a ballet dancer but lives with her husband’s rage over his failure to achieve success as a classical trombonist. In “Sea Life,” a young man named Sean flees from the life expected of him after an experience encountering dolphins while surfing. A woman named Annie goes on a problem-prone camping trip with her husband in a newly purchased trailer despite the fact that he is dying of AIDS in “This Time of Night.”
However, though each is unique, all of the pieces in the book revolve around a central axis point: a party held to remember the plane crash. All of the characters either live on the block, have previously lived on the block, or are significantly related to someone on the block. Characters from various pieces, as well as things that happen in such pieces, show up again and again in other pieces (this selection from “Lucinda’s Song”):
Now that Lucinda lived with Ramon in North Park, the neighbor ladies seemed to like to congregate on her patio…The poor girl around the corner, Annie, finally lost her husband to AIDS. Lucinda encouraged her to lay on the chaise lounge while Lucinda hung laundry nearby to dry in the sea breeze. They talked. At least Wes and Lauren seemed to have moved permanently back into the neighborhood from Hemet, a good thing since Annie and Lauren had become even closer.
Even beyond that, despite the variety, these stories are different explorations (or riffs perhaps) on the same themes: hope, worry, and striving. The characters are both alone and intimately and inescapably connected to each other. There are literal connections, but there are also significant connections beyond merely thematic.
Though I focus mostly here on the connections and variations in these pieces, don’t think those are the only good points of What Happened Here. I found the pieces all solidly written and interesting in and of themselves, full of engagingly developed characters and storylines. The individual pieces are all satisfying reads — it’s just that the way that the pieces come together strikes me as even more magical.
What Happened Here is a marvelous collection and I found myself wanting to reread it over and over to keep tracing both the literal and more symbolic links between the pieces. It obsessed me in a similar (though much more pleasant) way as the crash of PSA Flight 182 obsessed its characters.
David S. Atkinson is the author of Bones Buried in the Dirt and The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes (EAB Publishing, spring 2014). His writing appears in Bartleby Snopes, Grey Sparrow Journal, Interrobang?! Magazine, Atticus Review, and others. His writing website is http://davidsatkinsonwriting.com/ and he spends his non-literary time working as a patent attorney in Denver.