Book Review: “What Just Happened” — Memorable Thoughts on “A Long Year”

By Drew Hart

From the pandemic’s beginning, Charles Finch uses the crisis as a nearly daily backdrop for musings on all sorts. The results are at once cathartic, frightening, exasperating, and often hilarious.

What Just Happened: Notes On a Long Year by Charles Finch. Knopf, 274 pp. $28.

Look what the cat dragged in — one that almost got away? Your faithful correspondent — you can call me “the FC” — has come back from a reading break to bring attention to a remarkable piece of work that may be more relevant now than it was when published last fall, at which time it was pretty much overlooked.

Charles Finch — best known for a series of playful mystery novels set in 19th-century England — has switched gears in dramatic fashion with What Just Happened: Notes on a Long Year, a personal account of the life he lived between the advent of COVID in March of 2020, and the ten or so months that followed, up to around the time of the Biden inauguration. His book is comprised of diary-like entries, filed nearly daily, set in his current hometown, Los Angeles. Diving headlong into the pandemic’s beginning, much as it barged in itself, he proceeds through the months of this time, using the crisis as a backdrop for musings on all sorts. The results are at once cathartic, frightening, exasperating, and often hilarious.

From the early days of COVID — with lockdown orders, lifeless L.A. streets, carry-out cocktails, hospital ships in New York harbor, ever-rising numbers for the afflicted… and the dead — we follow Finch as he grapples with the situation in both personal and global ways. His frustration is, from the start, immense for a variety of reasons: “An idiot is in charge of everything. And we as a nation are out of pasta.” Staying home and smoldering, he has bingeing tendencies; they include pot smoking, listening to country music — as well as Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, and Norah Jones (who he can’t explain why he likes — me neither) — and consuming large portions of spaghetti and fettuccine. The last is a habit he developed while coping with a chronic endocrine disease, which, though largely tamed now, still bothers him a little and suggests special vulnerability — he is most cautious with the virus in the world as a result.

So he’s staying home, as Schwarzenegger advised — walking in the early mornings and at night in his Los Feliz neighborhood, burning a three-wick candle named ‘Calm the F— Down’ (“you go to war with the army you have”). He’s on Zoom calls with longtime friends, many of which he attended college with, one of whom is an E.R. doctor in Manhattan who frequently updates him with developments on the pandemic (though one may wonder — how does he finds the time?) By May, amid calls to re-open schools and businesses — it’s way too soon — he’s “going fucking crazy, dealing with insomnia, wishing he could go to Japan, Amsterdam… No way: we’re up to 100,000 casualties. On top of that, now comes the incident with the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis that leads to worldwide fury and rioting. L.A. is lockdowned doubly, helicopters are hovering over the streets. Finch sneaks across town to drink with a screenwriter and other friends in a backyard.

It’s a trifecta — “between Trump, COVID, and the murder of George Floyd, forces are alive in this country that were asleep before.” And our author’s indignation extends everywhere; this book is Not for those with red state sympathies. Finch is livid over Republican thinking, apoplectic at Trump’s handling of the situation (with his “New York steakhouse dialect”). He’s unsparing when describing Mike Pompeo, Kelly Loeffler, Louis DeJoy, Mike Pence, and wait, there’s more. Ben Carson is “wandering the halls of HUD, doing damage we can’t even see.” And there’s Betsy DeVos, “with her Dolores Umbridge self-certainty at Education, permanently harming children every day.” Don’t get him started on Trump boat rallies! But less likely targets are in his sights as well — The New York Times (which prints his own occasional book reviews) and its pundits David Brooks and Tom Friedman, Yale (his alma mater). Corporate America is savaged. “Give Citibank the fucking coronavirus and $1200 to live off… Make Citibank watch its grandfather die on an iPad.” Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg come within range: “every billionaire is a Hiroshima.”

With summer, there are signs that a vaccine is close to being a reality, but case and casualty numbers continue to climb. In Florida, Ron DeSantis, who Finch knew in college (“a weird, stubby little fellow… with sausage fingers and kind of lobster brown Florida tan that goes forty layers deep”), is downplaying everything. It’s getting oppressively hot In L.A., and the homeless encampments are growing. Finch continues walking, smokes more pot. The 2020 election begins to loom; though he’s convinced Trump will lose, he’s wary of it being rigged or stolen. “I don’t know anyone decent who’s not worried about it to the point of almost maximal anxiety every day.”

What else: have you already forgotten the ICE sterilizations in Georgia? He hasn’t. There’s the episode where Dear Leader gets the virus. Remember that? How about the fly that landed on Mike Pence’s head? We hear one of the most impassioned tirades against W ever launched, entertain the horror over the frantically rushed appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Things you may wish you could forget about are not going quietly here…

Though the election clearly proves to be victory for Biden, Finch remains astonished that over 70 million voters have chosen Trump, wonders what damage he will do in the last two months in office. With the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol comes the answer, something not worried about sufficiently ahead of time, he regrets afterwards. Then Biden is sworn in, and this telling of life in the days of COVID concludes. There are vaccines now, and Trump slinks off to Florida. Possibly this as good as any place to stop the account?

Although — and this is why yours truly, your FC, decided to speak out about this singular book — a year later, with Omicron, we’re still not out of the woods, meaning there is probably a great deal more to chronicle ahead. On Twitter, I asked Finch whether he might continue on with a sequel… the answer was an emphatic ’no.’ Fair enough, and yet there is certainly potential for that. Anyone up for it? Hope you can capture the spirit as well as What Just Happened.

Drew Hart writes from Santa Barbara, California

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