Harper Willowes, a nicey nice nurse who fantasizes that Julie Andrews should play her onscreen, is the protagonist of this story of terror and struggle in New England. A strange new plague threatens the entire country in The Fireman by Joe Hill, and people are spontaneously combusting as a result of infection by a spore commonly called Dragonscale. There’s tremendous destruction and fear, and people immediately separate into four non-mutually exclusive groups: those infected, those not infected, the decent and the assholes.
I was a bit leery of Nurse Willowes in the beginning. She’s too good and too silly, what with her “spit spot” and love of musicals and Disney films. But she recovered credibility when, after being pushed to the wall, she nearly takes her husband’s face off with a broken bottle. After being rescued by a mysterious fireman whose path she’s crossed before, as well as a couple of kids in Halloween masks, Harper escapes her murderous husband to join a bunch of infected people hiding in an old church camp near the New Hampshire coast. Harper, by the way, is infected and pregnant–two facts that turn her husband into a raving madman bent on killing her and every other infected person he finds.
You know the really hard part of writing a novel? (For a partial catalog of my complaints on this subject see this and this.) It’s keeping the big lurching middle of it from sagging between the great opening and the great finale. With this in mind, I appreciated the symbolism of Harper managing her pregnancy throughout this novel. If you buy in to her as a compelling character, and honestly it took me until chapter 13 to do that, you’re going to go all the way to the end.
While gestating at camp, Harper learns a lot about tricksy humans. It’s a fine line between community and cult. Hill does a great job of leading us into that most human valley of despair where people who are really trying to do what they think is best can end up carrying out the most despicable acts. He also does outright crazy well. Yes, yes, Joe Hill has firmly established his own voice as a writer with novels like NOS4A2 and Heart-Shaped Box, and he should not be compared to his famous writing father, but I could not help comparing the character Jacob Grayson (Harper’s former husband) to Jack Torrance in The Shining. The two characters share visceral and vindictive madnesses that are saved from becoming comedic because they feature such particularly nasty hatreds of women.
But what of the fireman, the man referenced in the title? He’s no supernatural being, just a working class British immigrant who figures out how to use his Dragonscale infection for good. He has some good moves with a halligan, great fire tricks and evidently he’s a babe magnet despite the fact he never bathes. Good enough, I say. I found him interesting and believable, even though he spends a significant amount of time functioning as an anchor working to slow Harper’s and her group’s escape. His basic goodness does not, however, warrant naming the novel after him. My alternate titles for this book include: Torch Song and Radiant Voices. Terrible, I know.
There are some thin spots in the plot, and the last quarter of the book could have been condensed, but I really enjoyed this novel. It was long, juicy, tense and full of action, with just the right amount of gore. And one more thing: it did what every damn book I pick up this year better do–it made me forget the world while I was reading it. I strongly recommend it to anyone who needs to get away from his or her own, real life madness right now.
Thumbs up and 4.4 stars out of five.