Review: This Is Only a Test

A brief disclaimer: This book was published by Indiana University Press, but my employer, the University of Nebraska Press, has published several of B. J. Hollars’ other works. Even so, this review is an honest one. The fact that I will later be helping Hollars promote his other books is a happy accident.

tioatThis Is Only A Test

by B. J. Hollars

Indiana University Press

The Basics

A collection of musings on natural disasters, Hollars writes about wonder and terror one feels when at the mercy of the universe. The first section details how he survived the EF-4 tornado that struck his home in Tuscaloosa, Alabama (by hiding in the bath tub with his wife, dog, and unborn child). Following sections dwell on drowning and destruction, on nuclear fallout and the potential loss of a child. These essays are clouded with tragedy, or at the very least, the fear of tragedy, yet a genuine love for life shines through the gloom.

In some ways, it can be easy to write about tragedies like tornadoes and tsunamis and bombs. They’re all horrible. They all lead to sullen contemplation about humanity and mortality. But here, Hollars does something very original. By placing essays on a late childbirth and baby’s first fever amid these other musings, he emphasizes how parenting is as much a natural disaster as a tornado or an earthquake. One brief instant, one positive pregnancy test, and your whole world is rocked.

The Craft

The book is a collection of short essays, divided by topic into three parts. Hollars plays with formatting throughout. Some essays are straight narrative and read more like fiction. Some essays are letters to his unborn children. One is formatted like a quiz. Several take the form of a list, Hollars’ own experiences and thoughts bunched together with related historical facts.

The lists were my favorites, as they clearly showed the thinking path these natural disasters lead Hollars to travel. When a boy in his neighborhood drowns, Hollars finds himself thinking about how people drowned throughout history, and why, and where, and whether some of them could have been prevented. It’s a very human reaction, and I could very clearly pick up on Hollars’ sheer bafflement at the world, a world torn apart both by tornadoes without conscience and men who consciously drop bombs on other men.

The shorter essays were also easier to handle. Not that the longer essays were difficult reading. Hollars’ writing is clear and coherent, and whatever bunny trails he might follow, they all lead back to wherever he started. But throughout this collection there is a quiet panic, a subversive fear for his children, for the victims and soon-to-be victims of disaster. Breaking these thoughts into essays was wise. If Hollars had chosen to write a novel or a traditional memoir based only on, say, the EF-4 and his town’s struggle to put itself back together, his fear would have soaked the pages, and readers would have drowned in it. The page breaks kept the story buoyant without making light of the subject.

I finished this in one weekend. Highly recommended.