When it became clear in March 2020 that the coronavirus was more than an annoying temporary disruption, some writers took to keeping COVID diaries. We’re fortunate that one as gifted and insightful as Los Angeles-based novelist and critic Charles Finch chose to preserve his recollections in the eloquent, fierce What Just Happened: Notes on a Long Year.
Early in the COVID-19 pandemic and fresh from a 13-city book tour, Finch began chatting on Slack with four friends. One of them was an emergency room physician from New York City, the virus’s first epicenter, who quickly impressed on Finch the gravity of the crisis. But even faced with this dire news, Finch obsessed over the availability of pasta, toilet paper and hand sanitizer and became a “candle guy.” As the months ground on, he grew more troubled by his increasing consumption of marijuana. Through it all he watched, with growing anger and dismay, as the human toll mounted, each round number of deaths rolling into the next, exposing our collective naiveté about how truly terrible our losses would be.
Finch is a keen political observer whose takedowns of the Trump administration’s almost willfully incompetent leadership are both savage and, at times, savagely funny. He also reflects on how the pandemic both exacerbated and exposed economic inequality in the United States, excoriating billionaires Jeff Bezos and Michael Bloomberg and confessing to “the joy I would take in shaking a little sand in the gears of capitalism.” Following the murder of George Floyd, he devotes considerable attention to the massive protests, wondering whether they are the harbinger of an overdue reckoning with racism in the United States.
Occasionally Finch departs from his contemporary narrative to share some moving bits of personal history, including an evocative scene of a snowy Central Park when he lived in New York in his 20s. He reminisces about the uncle who introduced him to blues and folk music (Finch’s affection for country singer Kacey Musgraves is a recurring theme) and about his grandmother, the artist Anne Truitt. A transplant from the East Coast, he also paints memorable pictures of his adopted hometown of LA, “the only sad city I’ve ever lived in,” as he remarks on how its “cool sunniness, its low-slung tatterdemalion endlessness, give the city a tranquil, dreamlike quality.”
With the election of Joe Biden and the arrival of vaccines, Finch emerged from an ordeal that hadn’t quite ended with the mien of a battle-weary combat veteran. Years from now, historians will comb through primary sources looking for evidence of how we thought and felt during these plague days. They would do well to turn first to What Just Happened.