May 10, 2008
BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE
Fighting Fires and Losing Myself
By Russell Wangersky
Thomas Allen, 271 pages, $32.95
Print Edition - Section Front
The Globe and Mail
I now know that "a thin, sugary smell reminiscent of caramel" may sometimes presage a hay fire. That the heavy protein foam used by firefighters smells "for all the world like hot dogs." That "10-45" on a police scanner is code for the discovery of a dead body and "Code-4 medical" is shorthand for a patient just moments away from perishing. That in a house fire, paint blisters fast and then "the bubbles crust over black" before splitting. I now know that whether you live or die in a gas explosion sometimes comes down to "bare-naked chance": whether you happen to be inhaling or exhaling at the moment of "whoof."
I know all this thanks to Russell Wangersky and his remarkable, almost Proustian book, Burning Down the House. Now the editor of the Telegram in St. John's, he served for eight years as a volunteer firefighter in two locales: the Annapolis Valley town of Wolfville, in Nova Scotia, and Portugal Cove-St. Philip's, on Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula.
The book is a record of what he saw and heard, smelled, felt and thought while responding to emergency calls. "Suffering" is not too strong a word to describe the impact of that experience on him, and I imagine that the act of putting it all down on paper (relying, it seems, on a photographic memory) provoked yet more suffering. By his own admission, his family suffered. Out of that apparently shattering experience has come this astonishingly visceral piece of writing.
Here is Wangersky on the sounds of one fire: "A hardware store was the first occasion I ever heard spray paint cans exploding, a bright, sharp crack of overheated metal, and then the deeper whumps as gallons of house paint blew their lids all along a shelving unit. It was a kaleidoscope of sound, that fire - the explosions, the crackling wood, the body slam of the plate glass front window suddenly reaching its thermal limit and blowing out all over the parking lot in great, long, reaching shards."
Fighting fires and rushing to accidents, he writes, is "a sensory wonder." Indeed. Burning Down the House is so graphic that the book's preface features a warning to that effect.
The reader is spared no detail. And yet I never found myself being repulsed by the images. I was more inclined to admire the hand that crafted them. Broken ribs cause Wangersky to ruminate on "the tinker-toy construction of the chest." Staunching the flow of blood made him feel "like I was mucking around in ochre soup, trying to find a cut artery like it's some sort of live and spraying rubbery noodle." When chickens catch fire in a barn blaze, they run - "small, angry meteors rushing along the ground in straight and urgent lines."
The author makes it perfectly clear that many others who serve as volunteer firefighters in this country's small and rural places are able to park their sensitivities, to get the job done and move on - without obsession, without nightmares, without anguish and tears. He could not. Wangersky got hooked, well and truly addicted, to the rush of adrenalin.
Burning Down the House is such a raw book, one that lays bare both terrible moments in time and the author's own unravelling. Over and over, he breaks down a blaze or a crash, probing its anatomy, its beginning and its end. This is a cautionary tale, one you might want to give to a teenager newly licensed to drive, or to a man who thinks he drives better with a few beers under his belt, or a woman who has removed the batteries from the smoke detector because it goes off when she fries bacon. I was left with a powerful sense of just how fragile the human body is, how vulnerable to tons of metal and rubber moving along at 120 kilometres an hour, how sometimes nefarious in nature is the "red devil" called fire.
Accidents portrayed on film and television somehow seem neater, certainly quieter. Crash victims don't scream all the while they're being rescued, but some do in this book. If I thought "the jaws of life" always get that trapped driver out quickly, I don't think that any more.
I would have wished for even more from the author on the actual physics of fire, while the material on his personal torments (the doubting, self-loathing and self-absorption) was almost too much to bear. But when Wangersky is rushing to the scene of a house in flames or to carnage on a dark county road, he is an all-senses-charged witness with an unerring eye for detail. In this haunting meditation on fate and chance, he literally takes you there.
His first collection of short stories, The Hour of Bad Decisions, was long-listed in 2006 for the Giller Prize and short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize. Mark down the name. He's a comer.
"Starting out in Wolfville, I had my mitts, a two-dollar throwaway flashlight -- the first one I bought was white, but there would be many more -- an aluminum hose tool for tightening connections, and eight feet of lightweight yellow nylon rope, coiled tightly and tied around itself. And helmet number nine--that was the number I signed out on everything. ...
I was in locker number nine, an open-front wooden locker in a row of real firefighters, all the other gear on either side of me, all of it belonging to the kind of guys who ran into burning houses while their owners were running out. ... They all looked bigger than real life to me, every one of them, all huge and serious and professional, incapable of either fear or doubt. Guys who knew what to do, always."
From Burning Down the House
Lawrence Scanlan lived in a small place - a village in Southeastern Ontario called Camden East - for 17 years. He is researching a book on volunteers and philanthropists.