In the early days of sheltering in place, a "new communitarian yearning" appears online, Charles Finch notes in his journal account of the COVID year. "There's such rawness in everyone — the mix is so different than usual, the same amount of anger, but more fear, less certainty, and I think more love." The mood reminds him of when the first pictures of Earth were sent back from space and "for eight or nine days there was a sudden belief that since we had seen that we all lived on the same blue planet, a new era of peace might begin."
And then everyone started fighting again. "But what a lovely week," he writes.
"What Just Happened: Notes on a Long Year" is the journal you meant to write but were too busy dashing through self-checkout lanes or curled in the fetal position in front of Netflix to get anything down. Thankfully, Finch did. His keen-eyed account is vivid and witty. It will make you laugh despite the horrors.
This temporarily disoriented, well-read literary man — Finch is the author of the Charles Lenox mystery series, and a noted book critic — misses his friends and the way the world used to be. There's a hysterical disjointedness to his entries that we recognize — and I don't mean hysterical as in funny but as in high-strung, like a plucked violin string, as the months wear on.
I am not enjoying the pandemic, but I did enjoy Finch's articulate take on life in the midst of it. Missing his friends and mourning the world as he knew it, Finch's account has a unifying effect in the same way that good literature affirms humanity by capturing a moment in time. As Finch chronicles his routines honestly and without benefit of hindsight, we recall our own. Events of the past year and a half were stupefying and horrific — but we suffered them together.
Finch talks online with friends, soothes himself with music, smokes a little pot, takes long walks in Los Angeles, admiring its weird beauty. He misses his mom. He rails against politicians and billionaire CEOs. He writes trenchantly about societal inequities laid bare by the pandemic.
Articulate and engaging, the account offers us the timeline we need because who remembers all that went down? Remember when a projected death toll of 20,000 seemed outrageous? Remember when groceries were rationed, sports were canceled, and President Trump said the virus would be gone by Easter? Remember protests, curfews and the horror as the whole world watched George Floyd die? Remember when right-wingers railed against looting as if that were the story? Remember when there was talk of a vaccine by spring and when, as early as the first presidential debate "the alibi for a Trump loss [was] being laid down like covering smoke in Vietnam?"
"If the Trump era ends," Finch writes on May 11, 2020, "I think what will be hardest to convey is how things happened every day, sometimes every hour, that you would throw your body in front of a car to stop."
Finch conveys it all here with all the humor and pathos the era deserves.
Christine Brunkhorst is a Twin Cities writer and reviewer.
What Just Happened
By: Charles Finch
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 268 pages, $28.