A Review of B.J. Hollars’ This Is Only a Test

May 13, 2016 § 1 Comment

hollarsBy Kelly Kathleen Ferguson

It’s the first real day of spring, all sunshine and budding tulips, ideal for reviewing a book of essays on disaster. I’ve finally settled in the coffee shop sofa, blocked out the grinding soundscape of Frappucino production and “Africa” by Toto, when two men sit behind me—one younger, one older. The younger man talks. The older man listens. Let’s call the younger man Theodore, after my orange tabby cat who yowls existentially into the night.

Theodore: “Do you feel as if you know everything, because you seem like someone quite sure in life, or are you still searching?”

If a writer begins her book review by transcribing a conversation that, while oddly compelling, amounts to Deepak Chopra gobbledygook, she is:

  1. Engaging in the postmodern spirit of This Is Only a Test, which employs offbeat structures such as quizzes, lists, and parallel narratives to circle around the author’s ruminations on disaster.
  2. “Off topic,” a note she frequently writes in the margins of her freshman composition papers.
  3. Okay, the reviewer can’t think of a good option “c” but wants to uphold the Rule of Threes. Isn’t that what she tells her creative writing students—that two feels like a mistake but three creates a pattern? That’s why Hollars, despite his varied forms, divides his book into a three-act structure: Dizzied, Drowned, and Dropped.

Humans crave pattern, which is why we look for connections. Consider B.J. Hollars and me. He grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the 1940s leading manufacturer of nuclear warhead parts. I live in Cedar City, Utah, the Post WWII nuclear testing fallout capital of America. Was it fate that we ran into one another at an AWP conference hotel sauna? Or that I grew up in Tuscaloosa, in a house blocks away from where the 2011 tornado near-missed Hollars and his burgeoning family?

Theodore: “Movement defines the universe. But if you go to higher planes—since movement can go in any direction—the data can move and it self-directs.”

If two people have lived within a few blocks of one another that is:

  1. Totally trippy and cool.
  2. A coincidence the reviewer is trying to stretch into something totally trippy and cool.
  3. Means the reviewer needs to refresh her undergraduate philosophy notes on David Hume’s concepts of continuous versus contiguous.

Who lives? Who dies? Who gets to write about survival and death? How should we write about survival and death? Hollars’s self-examination implies that if nothing else, we should exercise some manners in the situation, and stay humble. We shouldn’t interrogate a man walking the banks of the Black Warrior River for his son’s remains. We shouldn’t feel special because a fever spares our child but takes another. No one really knows why lightning decimates one house and skips the next. Furthermore, we should question our questioning.

Theodore: “I’m an idiot. Probably the dumbest guy in the room. But if I don’t open my mouth, how will I learn?”

Which of the following is Theodore’s wisest aphorism?

  1. If I can understand my wants, then I can cure the pattern.
  2. Love is a construct that operates interdependently while allowing us to be dependent.
  3. Energy comes from the tension of all directions. Past. Present. Future all exist at once. Time is malleable.

Theodore, apparently, could go on like this forever, and I can’t help but think I will see him one day starring in his own million-dollar infomercial. After all, self-help is an industry because people want to believe in the power of positive thinking.  I heard recently that writing down our goals in a journal increases our likelihood of achieving them by 49 percent . But I bet the study didn’t include goals such as: “I would like to not fall in an earthquake crevasse this year.”

Hollars circles around the human desire for order like an insomniac dog, which is maybe the best we can do as humans on the planet that hates us. In the end, what can we do but clutch our loved ones in the bathtub and hope the tornado blows over? Even my upbeat coffee shop guru, like Hollars, eventually concedes that while he believes in a key to the universe, he’s not sure how to access it.

Theodore: “But I don’t know how it works. I don’t know how it works.”


Kelly Kathleen Ferguson is an assistant professor at Southern Utah University. She is the author of My Life as Laura: How I Searched for Laura Ingalls Wilder and Found Myself. Her work has appeared in The Gettysburg ReviewNew England ReviewMcSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and other publications.

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