May 8th, 2008
Burning Down the House - Web exclusive!
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Burning Down the House: Fighting Fires and Losing Myself, by Russell Wangersky (Thomas Allen), 271 pp.
Ex-firefighter Russell Wangersky mines the glowing embers of his mind and produces an affecting tale
Russell Wangersky's memoir, Burning Down the House: Fighting Fires and Losing Myself, is a book that would not be written by most firefighters. There are taboos about talking about what you see, with your brothers or your families, let alone a reading public. You cannot talk about what nobody talks about, especially the nagging uncertainty about whether you even helped, or what it means to help, or whether there is any help to give. Nobody is supposed to remember things this well, the fires and accident scenes and injuries and deaths they've seen over the course of their years as a volunteer firefighter. But of course - and this is the first secret that Wangersky reveals - they do. At least Wangersky does, in searing, clear, torturous detail. One suspects his ultra-precise writer's eye for surveying detail and analyzing situations contributed to his skill as a firefighter (he was twice voted Firefighter of the Year by the brotherhood) as well as to the post-traumatic stress syndrome that finally dismantled his self, his sanity and his ability to live his own day-to-day life.
Wangersky, the editor-in-chief of the St-John's Telegram who began volunteer firefighting in the Maritimes as a 20-year-old with an honours degree in philosophy, relates, with patient precision, what it's like to be the first on the scene for countless unimaginable human tragedies, and for these kinds of events to be exactly the opposite of "unimaginable." They are in fact ever present in Wangersky's imagination; his waking hours and sleep have both been constantly interrupted by hallucinations and nightmares of accidents, injuries and deaths unfolding again and again.
His renderings of long-ago events are carved into the page so sharply and baroquely that readers will almost see them as he does, and as though they had also been there. Wangersky's first book, a collection of short stories entitled The Hour of Bad Decisions, was long-listed for the Giller and Commonwealth Writers' Prizes, and here he is describing his own life. The images are so well rendered, in fact, that the prose might call attention to itself, if it was something else that was being written about. But the fact is that Wangersky has such a story to tell us that the tightly controlled, occasionally extravagant writing only serves to send the point home.
Certainly, there is material here for readers curious about what fire can do to a house, or a person trapped inside, or about the mechanics of removing someone's twisted limbs from a car or a piece of farm equipment. But Wangersky has created a strange, effective structure for his memories. In chapters about various scenes, fires and victims he has seen, has helped or not helped, he is mapping the landscape of his own mind, looking for a way through.