THE FIREMAN – A Study in the Modern Insanity

by ryankl

THE FIREMAN by Joe Hill is an astonishing novel that’ll completely engulf you.

I love Joe Hill, I’m a complete mark for his work, and this book is definitely one of my absolute favourites of his stuff. It’s a great premise, handled well in the narrative line it chooses, the characters lure you in, and by the end you’re exhausted in all the right ways.

Hill said this book was his THE STAND. And this makes sense, it’s epic, it’s about big themes. 20TH CENTURY GHOSTS very much feels like his NIGHT SHIFT, and I guess NOS4A2 would be his ‘SALEM’S LOT, with HEART SHAPED BOX being a decent CARRIE. But with THE FIREMAN, Hill levels up in a way that lays out bigger real world scope, while still holding his narrative engine tightly in his hands and not letting him run away from him.

The story sparks from a national epidemic of a disease that causes a kind of spontaneous combustion. It’s a ‘Big Idea’ and Hill takes it and focuses in on one character, Harper Grayson. Which is the smart way to play this. We look at global trends through one location, one POV character. The people introduced around her form a way of thinking about the world at large.

Which is where the book becomes the most interesting, as it showcases how tribalism works, and why people love to bond together, even over the worst things. People with the disease, nicknamed Dragonscale for the body scars it produces, have to find a way to stay calm, and one group discovers that bonding together, especially over singing, is an effective way to calm the system, and feed it what it needs in a casual way.

Which sounds amazing, right? Harmonious, even. But that’s where Hill unpacks the idea of tribalism and how some people just want to belong, and no matter what we are doing, if we are doing it together, we’re belonging, and it’ll help us feel safe.

While the story plays with this in some ghastly ways, it’s not hard to make the connection to online social media, and the dogpiles, and the edgelords with their merry band of lame ass followers and hecklers. Everyone who gets in on the dogpile action feels collected and counted and this makes them warm and whole.

It’s scary, especially because it’s true. The whole idea of the “senpai” whistling online is a clear indication of what people feel and how far they’ll go to feel it. Being noticed has become being accepted, and being accepted is being safe. A RT on twitter can fuel the fire for more hatred, more trash, and more ignorance so long as its noticed.

I mean, this works for enlightenment and knowledge and fun, too, but people don’t engage the good stuff as eagerly. And the fun people are usually engaged enough. But the curmudgeons and the vitriolic get a rise, they ‘trigger’ someone, and then it’s on, and they love it. There’s more than what they normally get, which is empty anonymity and silence.

This book looks into that mindset and just makes you want to scream at times. You will feel horrible, but that level of engagement is brutally necessary for a story like this. You have to care, even though it’ll steal your energy and a little bit of your heart for a time.

The ideas of this landscape are taken right up to the final chapter, where we are given a haunting and memorable finale that takes everything that’s come so far, writes a few lines, and scrumples up the paper on which it is written and soaks it in gasoline. Your reaction defines what happens after that.

THE FIREMAN isn’t an easy read at times, but it is an exceptionally engaging read that will leave you thinking about our own world with clearer eyes for a long while after.