Published December 11, 2009 by John
I got it from the library just hoping it would be a reasonable book to read while traveling, but a page or two in to it I could tell it was going to be different. Maybe I was just in the right mood for it, but I would be reading along through a story of a firefighting episode and come to a passage that drew me up, and I would think “whoa, how did he just do that?”
Rough hands are a comfort. Like jeans and old boots. I love to attend poetry readings, to skulk in the dark, skimming words from the smoke. (Riffing on a line by Jim Harrison, I find smoke-free poetry readings the moral equivalent of chamomile near beer.) The right little conglomeration of words makes my heart pop open like a tulip, and no matter the venue or talent, you’re almost always going to get the gift of a good line in there somewhere.
The setting of the book is a small town in northwest Wisconsin, where he grew up and has returned to, but that’s just the canvas for his reflections on life and community. His paint brushes are stories from work on the volunteer fire department as an EMT and firefighter, with the people being the subjects in the frame. For instance, he takes on the relationship he has with his brothers, each of them very different from him, and who also are on the firefighting squad.
I read volumes on the Civil War when I was a child, and was always morbidly fascinated with the idea of brother fighting brother. I could never understand how such a thing could be. Today I do. I would kill–I am not speaking figuratively–for my brothers, but I also know that if the course of civilization boiled down to a few salient points, we would be irretrievably opposed. Such a likelihood is highly fanciful, but the thought is still unsettling. There is a certain paradoxical rage weltering in us that explodes when it is nudged too closely by love. These are threads of love and hate traceable to Cain and Abel.
Fire cuts through all that. Down in the basement of that house, we are on the same side, my brother and I. Doing something we both love, fighting something we both fear, covering for each other. Fire is heat and light, able to cut through the murky complications reserved for souls born of the same womb.
I found myself wanting to dog ear pages as I come across little breath-catchers like this, only to find that I would mark more pages than not. Instead I decided to just lean back into the writing and enjoy the ride. And I did, clear through to the last page.
Part of his appeal to me is his self-effacing honesty in the face of loving a splintered, cantakerous, unpredictable and lovely world. He finds gobs of things interesting, and has been trying to feel around for a place where all parts of his passion are fed.
I admit there are times vanity gets the better of me and I entertain visions of myself as the Bohemian Farmboy. The Arty Redneck. I imagine myself bridging two cultures. Truth is, I’m am a dilettante in either camp. I own a rusty old pickup truck, but it’s not running right now, and I don’t know how to fix it. I can run a welder, but lay a keloid bead…. I have read great works of literature, but recall only the grossest details. I can no more diagram a sentence than rewire an alternator.
In particular, he’s circling around the idea of “community” throughout the book, what we expect it to be and what it turns out to be.
Individual freedom is essential to the human spirit, and a theoretical individualism makes for cool Nike (or Army, for that matter!) commercials, but sometimes you have to team up. To fight a fire, for instance. I love–the word is not too strong–the idea of neighbors coming together to put out fires, and I am thrilled to be a part of that effort when I am called. It feels good. It feels right. It feels like I belong. Sometimes you find yourself looking for little commonalities. Go Packers.
What you hope for, I think, is to reconcile the dichotomies and negotiate a position of comfort. This is mostly a passive process. Which is not to infer limp acquiescence. In a town founded by a successful author who set up his own sawmill but didn’t write his own book, I make a living writing, but some of my credibility is maintained by the fact that my helmet is hanging on the wall over at the fire hall right now, and while no one on the department has any idea what goes on at these poetry readings, or what I could possibly get from watching an eighty-nine-year-old man dancing Ulysses and the Sirens in a headdress and gold lame g-string, they do know that when there is smoke in the sky, I will pull hose and roll.
It’s a story that draws out the beauty of overlooked parts of life, not to tell you how you should try to live, but to remind us of that everyday wonder so that perhaps we won’t miss it the next time we catch a flash of it in our own lives.
Filed under Books