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The Fireman


The Fireman

THE FIREMAN gives one much to love, more to fear, and a bit to dislike. We’ll cover the last one later, but let’s start with the first two aspects of Joe Hill’s new doorstop novel.

The premise of the book is remarkable. It begins a week or two from now in what has become a very different world. People are literally going up in flames thanks to an invasive, infectious spore that becomes known as Dragonscale, due to the unique skin markings --- somewhat resembling an elaborate, striped tattoo --- that appear on those who become infected. This is a nice literary touch, given that similar tribal markings are currently in style and can be seen on living display in any shopping area, restaurant kitchen or college campus. One can easily imagine what would happen in this world if such a thing were to occur, and you might be forgiven if, after reading THE FIREMAN, you have to fight the reflex to shy away from that similarly inked person as they hand you your change at the mall food court.

"THE FIREMAN remains worth reading for its premise and Hill’s frequent flashes of descriptive brilliance, which are wonderful and frightening to behold."

No one is really sure how Dragonscale is transmitted --- though an excellent guess is made about a third of the way through the book --- so that those who bear the markings of the spore tend to be avoided like...well, the plague. No one wants to catch it, since it seems to mean certain death, or to be around someone who might go up in flames with no warning at all. Hill has all sorts of nasty fun with this, particularly at the beginning of the book, which opens with an exquisite description of someone going all Johnny Storm in front of a school clinic where a nurse named Harper Grayson is working. As the story progresses, Harper discovers that she is pregnant and infected with Dragonscale, two things that make her husband Jakob unhappy, to say the least. We’re talking Jack Torrance-unhappy here, and it looks like curtains for Harper until she is rescued by John Rookwood, the Fireman of the piece. John takes her to Camp Wyndham, where a de facto minister has provided a sanctuary for the afflicted and taught them to live with and control the Dragonscale, which they refer to as “The Bright.”

Hill uses Harper’s stay at Wyndham to introduce a couple of mysteries. One is straight out of a Helen Fuller Orton book and concerns the identity of the person who is stealing items from the residents and food from their already-depleted supplies. The other involves a violent attack upon the reverend, leaving him in a coma. This mystery gives Hill the opportunity to display his knowledge of how to field-treat a subdural hematoma. I promise you that after reading that passage, you will never walk into a Home Depot without thinking of it. On the whole, however, the time in the camp constitutes way too much of this very long book, sucking the air out of it for a couple of hundred pages. And we all know what happens to fire when the air is sucked away from it, don’t we?

Hill, though, finally wrests the steering wheel of the story from his own verbosity and gets the novel back on its fiery road with a series of explosive vignettes as John, Harper and her unborn child, and a few other interesting secondary characters attempt to reach an island off of New England, where it is rumored that those with Dragonscale are welcomed and a cure is in the offing. The island, interestingly enough, is run by...well, that would be telling, but if you grew up in the 1980s and/or listen to SiriusXM, you’ll chuckle and shake your head, even as you’re waiting breathlessly for the next explosive obstacle in their path. And there are many in the last 200 pages or so, which feature a very wild ride for those characters who make it to the end of the book and their final destination, which will provide you with one last “ohmighod” moment that you will read over and over.

There are scenes here that you’ll never get out of your head. You’ll avoid crowds for a couple of weeks after reading it, just on general principle, and haul out your parents’ (or grandparents’) Dire Straits albums for a listen. The only (major) weakness is that it’s too long. It could have benefited mightily from some judicious editing, primarily in the middle third of the story, as well as most, if not all, of Hill’s political observations and asides that, no matter which side of the aisle one is on, really added nothing to the story going forward, other than to pile on to an already too-high page count.

Still, THE FIREMAN remains worth reading for its premise and Hill’s frequent flashes of descriptive brilliance, which are wonderful and frightening to behold. By story’s end, you will wonder if Dragonscale, or something like it, is really out there.

Audiobook available, performed by Kate Mulgrew

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on May 20, 2016

The Fireman
by Joe Hill