The Fireman - Joe Hill
The Fireman - Joe Hill **
Don't let the simple ordinariness of the title fool you; there's nothing mundane about the occupation the situation that nurse Harper Willows finds herself in when she first meets the fireman of Joe Hill's latest novel. Any semblance of familiarity for the reality of the world as we know it disappears after the first couple of pages in The Fireman, Hill throwing us into a terrifying situation where not only the whole social structure of the USA collapses rapidly rght in front of your eyes, but it would appear most of the world goes to hell with it. It's not pleasant reading, and I mean that in more ways than one.
Tapping into a growing trend of works imagining environmental or viral devastation leaving the remaining population struggling for survival in the post-apocalyptic wasteland, Joe Hill describes a dire situation where the world has been overrun by a deadly virus of uncertain origin known as Dragonscale. People are spontaneously igniting in the streets, consumed by flames and the virus is spreading fast. People are frightened, frantically examining themselves for the first signs of the virus marking their skin. Once that starts showing - and there are few who remain unaffected - there's very little time between smouldering and combustion.
Despite taking every precaution, nurse Willows succumbs to the telltale markings that suggest only one outcome in the near future. Even though she is pregnant, her husband Jakob knows that there's little time left and that there's only one realistic course of action left open to them; but Harper isn't so sure. An encounter with the Fireman gives her hope even as the public disruption teeters towards widespread breakdown of the social order, with rumours spreading of the existence of communities where Dragonscale victims have learned to live with the disease, and even benefit from the strange effects it seems to have on some of them.
Comparisons are inevitably going to be drawn between Joe Hill's The Fireman and his father's writing, particularly in relation to The Stand. It's not unreasonable that you would expect to find an influence of some kind, and while there are indeed certain aspects of the post-apocalyptic subject that are reminiscent of Stephen King's work, Hill definitely has a voice and style of his own. If he has the same gift for imaginative storytelling, Hill is however not quite as strong on character and substance. I could tell you what band from the 1980s everyone in the book likes and what their favourite movie is - frequent references to Mary Poppins do at least present an contrasting fantasy counterpoint to the reality of the Dragonscale virus and its 'magic' - but it's superficial detail, and doesn't tell you a great deal about deeper character motivations. It certainly doesn't explain why so many people are sick and twisted in various ways and keen to act in increasingly violent, brutal and nasty ways.
As the son of a famous author himself, the nature of writing inevitably comes up now and again. Hill makes a few jokey references to writers as sad cases who seek justification in their 'art' to act out their sick fantasies, but that doesn't get him off the hook; The Fireman could be accused of doing exactly the same thing. It's littered with stock characters and vile situations of people being horrible to one another, brutalising and torturing, murdering and mutilating, beating and ostracising, all of it backed up with plenty of crude dialogue expressing the worst imaginable sexism, profanity and misogyny. It's not enough to brutalise women - who seem to come in for the worst treatment here - the author makes sure there are plenty of opportunities to humiliate them on the page as well.
But given the nature of what we are dealing with here, surely that's to be expected? A post-apocalyptic world will surely only lead to a descent into near-barbarism that will only emphasise and bring out these latent characteristics in men and women who are truly scared. If that's the case, Hill makes the point well enough, and that's something to be truly frightened about. I'd be more concerned that the author can't seem to imagine anything but the worst in people and society, but then judging by the success of The Revenant and Tarantino's latest The Hateful Eight, that seems to chime with a lot of what passes for entertainment in the USA at the moment. The Fireman is very much in keeping with the times then, tapping into an America that is uncertain about the future and wondering if it will survive, and its response is a rather troubling one.
The Fireman by Joe Hill is published by Victor Gollancz on 7th June 2016