Despite its leanness, Dave Housley’s latest story collection, Massive, Cleansing Fire, is full of gloriously witty moments and uniquely fascinating characters and situations. Made up of individual stories, each one ending in a fire or focused on accounts of those caught up in a wildfire apocalyptic event, this is a creative, provocative, and refreshingly different sort of book. Key to the narrative are several interesting recurring characters who link many of the stories together: John, the restless former combat photographer; his tormented neighbor, Terry; and Terry’s unhinged brother-in-law, Randall. All these deeply flawed, oddball characters struggle in different ways to cope with their environment. John is an especially curious specimen. Proud yet sympathetically drawn, he is clearly intended as a source of amusement. No longer serving in the military nor stationed in places like the Sudan, Afghanistan, and Iraq (or, as his wife puts it, “gallivanting all over the place”), he has returned to civilian life and taken a mundane job at a museum for the sake of his pregnant wife who is due to give birth to their first child in a matter of weeks. He desperately clings to his past accomplishments; his impressive photography portfolio, which always receives an “awed” reaction from people, consists of images of “severed body parts, burning twisted metal, mass burial sites,” and “a Sudanese ten-year-old with a machine gun.” The pride he once took in his work has evaporated. In place of modern instances of death, destruction, and decay, he now photographs ancient examples in the form of “the skulls of beaked whales, ghost orchids, [and] stegosaurus bones.” Away from the exhilarating dangers of a combat zone, with “bullets biting through the air,” he feels trapped in his suburban life and disillusioned at work.
He would put away his camera and trudge homeward.
He tried not to think about what was happening to his body and mind, to his combat photographer’s soul, but it was a long walk and unlike similar walks he might have taken in Mogadishu or Kashmir, there was nothing to do but think.
By comparison, Terry and Randall are both delusional, extreme figures. Related as a result of Tony’s marriage to Randall’s stepsister, they are very much cut from the same cloth. Tony, a perpetual inebriate who recently separated from his wife, becomes increasingly irrational and proves a danger to himself because of his reclusive behavior and heavy drinking. Conversely, Randall, a social misfit with a history of delinquency, is a darker, more overtly unsafe individual. Escaping a shady past, he begins a new life as a solitary, grouchy lawn-care worker who is obsessed with the TV show Friends, so much so that he continually draws parallels between those characters’ lives and his own. When he befriends a couple students who live on the street where he works—fun-loving Rusty and his tall, blond girlfriend, Jenny, with the “perfect face”—Randall becomes infatuated with the girl, comparing her to the TV character Rachel. Increasingly unable to differentiate reality from fantasy, his surroundings start morphing into the set of the TV show he loves and loathes.
He ran past the professor, smirking like Chandler or Ross, past Rusty standing there with his hands on his hips shouting something out toward whatever studio audience he wished was watching, past the lawnmower and the truck and the trees lined just right along the summer streets.
In what is otherwise a sizzling collection, perhaps inevitably some stories shine less brightly than others, and some never quite ignite. Certain stories’ brevity may be part of the problem. For example, early on we see an “ancient man and his adult son huddled in a hay barn,” awaiting the apocalyptic fire that is raging across the world. They were spared from a recent deadly illness that claimed the lives of most of the population, but decided to give in and let the fire consume them. These characters have such a spare, fleeting role in the book that their presence seems extraneous. The same goes for Emily, the religious zealot spouting bombastic biblical statements, or the two teenagers huddled under a comforter as the bedroom walls blister. These slight, incidental stories—fodder for the fire, if you will—tie into the end-of-the-world story line but, as stand-alone pieces, they fall slightly flat. The one story that shines among them concerns a writer in New York who has rescued priceless Rothko, Picasso, and Lichtenstein paintings from a museum. Entombed in her apartment as the building burns, she sets alight her rolled-up notebook, touches the flame to the Rothko, and regards the cherished artwork as the colors begin to melt. This unexpected, spectacular image is the sort that stays with you long after you have finished the book.
Although all the stories share some type of fiery theme, those that separate from the fire and brimstone narratives are the most effective. The story concerning seven clowns and a monkey crowded into a tiny car, accelerating “in an increasingly unlikely circle” around the circus ring and “threatening to careen out of control at any moment” is one of the highlights of the collection. Each clown, aware of the “applauding and whooping and whistling audience,” is both semi-focused on their performance and, at the same time, consumed with their own personal problems, grievances, and career aspirations. Shorty, a sour dwarf with pent-up aggression for his colleagues and the world at large, smarting from an serious injury, is one of several on course for self-destruction: “He can picture it—the crash, the tangle of limbs, the gasps from the crowd, blood and bones and gristle and fire.”
Stories like this, more rounded, with slightly more depth and characterization, help make Massive, Cleansing Fire an imposing inferno of visually dazzling, dynamic writing.
About the Reviewer
Nicholas Litchfield is the founding editor of the popular literary magazine Lowestoft Chronicle, author of a suspense novel, and editor of six literary anthologies. He has worked in various countries as a tabloid journalist, librarian, and media researcher. His book reviews for the Lancashire Evening Post are syndicated to twenty-five newspapers across the UK. He lives in western New York with his wife and two children.