Book Review: The Fireman by Joe Hill

I feel like taking this book on the beach in weather well over 90 degrees really helped me get into that whole “people burning from the inside out” feeling brought on by the fictional spore, without the pesky bursting into flame. It was like method reading. I’m hardcore like that. However, this book is also thoroughly enjoyable from an air-conditioned environment. Wherever you read it, you won’t want to put it down.

It’s hard not to make the obvious comparisons between Hill and his dad, Stephen King, but Hill has always had a few similar habits (dropping callbacks to characters & places in his other books, for instance). This one, though, is his Stephen King-iest book yet, and I mean that in the best possible way. Hill is great at showing us a world like the one we live in with something slightly askew. This time, that something isn’t supernatural, rather it’s an infectious spore that causes people to overheat and eventually catch fire. Most of the US is pretty soon burned up and hospitals can only quarantine those with the disease, called Dragonscale.

On the surface, this is a fantastic book that keeps you on edge and turning pages throughout. It will give you all the feelings, gives good horror, and throws in a thief and a murder mystery to boot. It’s a great story and Hill peppers plenty of dread-inducing foreshadowing, often ending a chapter with a phrase like “It was the last thing he said for two months.” They’re nice reminders that this world offers very little hope, and when it does, it quickly snatches the hope back, then punches you in the face for being so naive.

Beneath the surface, it’s an examination of the best and worst of human nature, presenting pretty much a worst-case outbreak scenario and a horrifyingly plausible idea of how American society deals with that. It’s not pretty. Predictably, people respond with fear and attempts to isolate and destroy those with the disease, with not much bother given to trying to understand it or cure it. Then again, it seems to spread to large-scale disaster/pandemic pretty quickly, so what exactly would be the best way to deal with humans who seemingly are capable of combusting at any moment? Still, there’s got to be a better way than just rounding them up and storing them until they burst into flame.

Vigilante “Cremation Crews” hunt down and end the sick who try to hide apparently with the blessing of the authorities and everyone else, religious nuts of several varieties cause problems and our (infected) heroes try to make the best of the new secret society they’re forced into. Of course, even a small community of people trying to create some sort of way of being will run into conflicts of opinion and personality. Here, these differences soon turn dangerous and deadly, making you wonder if humans are worth salvaging at all. Hill balances this damning evaluation of human nature by giving us a few fierce folks to cheer for. Harper, John, Renee and Father Storey (if no one else) hold ferociously to the belief that there is something worth fighting for and in Harper’s case, a world worth saving and bringing her unborn child into.

The protagonist, Harper is a young nurse working in an elementary who thinks she has a pretty decent life with her husband. Her philosophy on life can be summed up as “What would Mary Poppins do?” It’s pretty clear from the beginning that her husband is a condescending, manipulative asshole, and thankfully, she sees this, too, once she learns she’s infected. She’s forced to go from someone who doesn’t want to make waves to someone who stands her ground and fights — literally and figuratively — for herself and what she believes to be right. Still, she manages to hang on to her positive and pleasant nature, even as she becomes harder, fiercer, and more determined. I love the contrast and closeness between her and the titular Fireman, John Rookwood, who’s older, more cynical, and basically an embodiment of punk anarchist spirit with his gleeful recklessness (also, he’s English).

The ending is satisfying, even if the bad thing I knew was going to happen but still foolishly hoped wouldn’t did, of course happen. That’s actually a good indicator of what this book does to you. It says, yes, everything is terrible, humans are mostly garbage and absolutely nothing is going to work out well or even remotely as you hope, but you should still keep trying and have some optimism. Because what else are you going to do, really? Just sit there and get burned?

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