by Keith Dixon

There is an uncharted territory of the heart, mind and spirit that
is a geographical locus as well. We could call it, generally, the
outskirts of New York City, neither quite urban nor entirely rural,
influenced adversely by the qualities of both. It is into this
setting that Keith Dixon, an editor for the New York Times,
brings his debut novel GHOSTFIRES, laying bare the extremes of the
borders of the complicated relationship between fathers and

The father and son of this novel are Warren and Ben Bascomb,
respectively. As GHOSTFIRES opens, the center of their quiet but
long-simmering dispute revolves around an act that Ben regarded as
a final act of mercy for his terminally ill mother, but that Warren
considered to be murder. The father and son relationship, always
uneasy, became further unraveled when Warren's medical license was
suspended five years previous to the events of GHOSTFIRES due to
his addiction to Dilaudid. He subsequently entered into an uneasy,
roiling pact with his son, a clandestine arrangement that has kept
Ben financially afloat subsequent to a business failure while
keeping Warren supplied with the drugs that have enslaved and
ruined him.

While the pact brought an abrupt end to their external hostilities,
their mutual anger continues to simultaneously consume both men
from within. Father and son each despise the other for providing
them with what they feel they need: a tenuous financial security
for Ben, and the temporary satiation of addiction for Warren. It is
this dichotomy that drives GHOSTFIRES.

Dixon, however, infuses this fine third-person narrative from the
first page with the implied foreknowledge that the arrangement
cannot successfully continue for long. Ben may be a drug mule, but
he does not have the personality for it. The people he is dealing
with are way out of his league. These include the enigmatic Victor,
for whom every deed, even those that might in some way be described
as charitable, is extracted only at great price. Warren, meanwhile,
is driven entirely by his addiction. His all-consuming desire for
drugs both sustains and threatens the arrangement that keeps him
supplied and his son marginally solvent. Ben, meanwhile, is on the
verge of losing his family. His desperate actions drive his wife
Emma back to the home of her parents, where quiet but dangerous
insanity reigns.

As the reader gradually learns the motivations behind all of the
parties involved, and the history that has brought them to where
they are, Ben and Warren move steadfastly toward an apocalypse that
will result in a bad ending for one and a bizarre, partial
redemption for the other.

While GHOSTFIRES is Dixon's first novel, he remains sure-footed
from first page to last, turning over the rocks of the father-son
relationship and revealing the quiet, coiled, and dangerous snakes
beneath. Reminiscent of some heretofore unknown collaboration
between John Barth and George V. Higgins, GHOSTFIRES is not so much
a crime novel as a character study, a penetrating allegorical look
into the lives of a father and son who, over the course of their
lives, have had achievements and disappointments and have been
unable to fully come to grips with either. Now, they are inexorably
linked together in a situation from which neither of them is able
to escape intact.

This is an impressive debut from a writer who unquestionably will
have more to say in the future.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011

by Keith Dixon

  • Publication Date: January 22, 2004
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • ISBN-10: 0312317409
  • ISBN-13: 9780312317409