Joe Hill’s The Fireman bears similarities to Lord of the Flies and Fahrenheit 451 (both comparisons that were made very early on in the book’s publicity run), but also, in my mind, to Stephen King’s 2009 modern epic Under the Dome. Like Golding’s book, it has the "my clan/your clan" adversity that builds throughout the novel and ultimately swells out of control with deadly results. It functions as a study in the irrationality of groupthink and the idiosyncrasies of people’s behavior who have been manipulated by an autocratic leader in whom they have blind faith, as the people of Chester's Mill with Big Jim Rennie in Under the Dome. And, like Fahrenheit 451, it has a lot of fire in it.
All three of Joe Hill’s previous novels (NOS4A2, Horns, Heart-Shaped Box) have been, more or less, “intimate” books with relatively few main characters at their centers. The Fireman is new territory for him in that regard, as it features a wide assortment of characters with vastly differing backgrounds and sensibilities. This contributed both to the book’s strength and, in my opinion, its weakness. While a number of the characters were written with utter clarity and easily discernible personalities (Harper, The Fireman, Jakob, Renėe, Allie, Nick, Ben, Carol, Tom Storey, The Marlboro Man, Harold Cross), other members of Camp Wyndham became muddled and lost in my mental inventory only because of the largeness of the book and the size of its cast of characters. I found this to be only occasionally distracting and, admittedly, the blame may lie more with my poor reading skills than with the author’s ability.
To touch briefly on one other negative quality, I felt that the pace of the book took an enormous two hundred page dip in its middle third. The beginning section was riveting, and the ending was fantastically exciting—a true heart-racing page-turner—but the meandering interpersonal drama of Camp Wyndham in the middle of the book was somewhat slow and frankly not all that interesting.
Those things aside, Joe Hill does an exceptional job of introducing the reader very swiftly into the nature of the world as it stands when we enter the story. An epidemic infection called Dragonscale, carried by a rare spore and transmitted to humans in an unknown way, is causing people all over the world to spontaneously combust. Evidence of the disease can be seen on the skin of its victims (before the point where they burn up) in the form of swirling black tattoo-like formations, flecked with gold. In the opening chapters, the Space Needle in Seattle tips over, engulfed in flames, ignited people flying out its windows before it crashes to the ground on live television. And the blazing mayhem only increases from there.
Speaking of blazing, Hill should be given credit just for his use of such a diverse collection of fire-, smoke-, and ash-related words. You can only say something is “hot” or “burning” so many times before you have to dig out the old thesaurus and start finding new ways to describe flames. Joe does, and well.
I have to admit that the last two hundred pages made up for the narrative lull that preceded it. In a way, there was not one climax, but three, as the novel wraps up several facets of its storyline at different times, each more satisfying than the last. Not only was the conclusion exciting, but clever in such a way that will inspire one to say of Hill, “That sly son of a bitch.” Having read everything he has published up to this point, I can personally attest to Joe Hill’s talent for dropping seemingly insignificant little nuggets throughout his stories and imperceptibly bringing them back around at the perfect moment. These small payoffs, along with his ability to be heartfelt without being corny, make the conclusions of his books often very satisfying.
While some of his books may be substantially stronger than others, I haven’t read a “bad” story by Joe Hill yet. He has a unique voice and is an undeniable talent, which makes me think he’s gonna be churning out good ones for many years to come.