Donald Anderson's first book is a delight in many ways. Not only is it a rich treasure-trove of a story, but its author lives in our own town! What a treat to find that we have a great writer lurking in our midst.
Ostensibly a short-story collection, Fire Road is, in fact, a relatively cohesive episodic cycle, or what most people would consider a novel. Yet the stand-alone quality of its vignettes is what allowed this book to be published as it is, the latest in the prestigious and high-quality University of Iowa short fiction series and to win the John Simmons Short Fiction Award. The Iowa series has introduced to the published world such exceptional writers as Dan O'Brien, Robert Boswell and Marly Swick, a group whose excellence is lessened not in the least by Anderson's company.
Fire Road tells much of the story of Stephen Mann, an unremarkable man dealing with love, mortality, war, fires, storms -- the emotional and physical elements with which we are all familiar. Anderson's style beautifully renders this man, and all those around him, via a variety of writing techniques; we are the blind men touching a group of objects and the story of Mann slowly reveals itself to be a parabolic elephant.
Anderson's styles are very literary but never sterile; he succeeds with both straightforward and experimental techniques. His masculine subjects are reminiscent at times of such Hemingway progeny as Richard Ford, Thom Jones and Rick Bass. There is a riveting brush with violent and senseless death, a great deal about boxing and more about colostomies in the book than anyone could ever want to know.
Like Hemingway, there is little fat; Anderson has a painter's eye for important and fascinating detail, creating touching scenes with memorable imagery. His dialogue is Raymond-Carver real:
June disappeared from the hall to the bathroom; as she pivoted, I caught a last glimpse. June saw I had; she froze for the merest second, shoulders hunched, then beamed me the sweetest smile. I'd finished my drink when June emerged. She came to me; we held.
"My chest is my best thing," she said.
"Your chest is wonderful," I said.
June didn't stop her visits, but she managed to stay dressed.
The book is filled with little gems:
"Tell you what is real?" I wrote. Then: "Charlie Chaplin once entered a Charlie Chaplin look-alike competition. Charlie came in third. How would I know what is real?"
Best of all, one scene takes place in Poor Richard's Restaurant, after a fire (was there really a fire there?), and during an era when smoking was still allowed.
A few of the stories stand on their own, such as the title story, and one called "The Peacock Throne," a particularly timely piece:
Within the year, twelve-year-old Iranians fling themselves against barbed wire or march, unarmed, into Iraqui mine fields in the face of machine-gun fire. The weaponless boys' ticket to paradise is a blood red headband and a small metal key they wear into battle ... As members of the human-wave assaults, tens of thousands of such children have died. For the purpose of assured salvation, few pass puberty. An officer explains: "We have so few tanks."
OK, so the book peters out a little toward the end, and leaves us with a few unanswered questions. (How did Barrie die? Why did her mother dislike Stephen?) But these are minor quibbles, as Fire Road is a wonderful debut from a sublimely talented homeboy.