March 2007

Blake Butler

fiction

Fires by Nick Antosca

Having just finished Fires, the debut novel by 23-year-old Nick Antosca in two short sittings, I now know that it is possible to be strangled without realizing. A difficult proposal, obviously: how could you ever not notice the hands around your neck? Fires procures this unexpected, plodding feeling via well-trimmed, thoughtful prose, storytelling that lets the words work more in the cortex than directly on the page. 

I found myself drawn through the first half of Fires without understanding what it was that kept me going. The initial position deals with a love affair, if a violent one, blueprinted in pain. Jon Danfield meets a slight, peculiar girl and swoons for her, torturing himself with her past the more he learns: she likes to be beaten. They spend many pages going on together, having strange sex, doing drugs, at the same time trying to figure out what they are together. For the most part I do not like relationship-based writing, but something told me this was only the foundation for something. If Antosca’s college-campus-set environments are familiar, it is all to the favor of the juxtaposition of Danfield’s mental warring, the way there always seems to be something he isn’t saying, that seems to propel a darker undercurrent. 

The book’s second primary setting is so well rendered that it stings -- Danfield returns to his hometown set ablaze, eaten up by unbridled fires almost Saundersian in their apt handling, though without the drawl of satire. As the title implies, the flames seem to burn up on the page even when not mentioned. It’s what’s not said, in fact, what is suggested, that begins to tighten the grip on the narrative knows. Antosca’s vivid, tactile detail (I particularly like, early on: “The knuckles are cracked and white-fringed like old carrots.”) begins to accrue, gather weight. As the narrator swims in a semi-hallucinatory state through his parents evacuated house, across the street from which a young boy had been imprisoned and tortured for many years (a key element of the second and more stomach-curdling of the novel’s two primary threads), we too feel sequestered in a world gradually shrinking, the walls of fire moving in and closer. The claustrophobia and the evil are so cleanly put that they almost sink right through you; you’re almost able to look beyond. 

Which leads this book’s resolution: the itch that opens up. One of the most difficult forms of rising action is to cause a sudden realization, in a character’s mind, or just the reader’s, that alters the entire fabric of the story around it. Often times it seems contrived or manipulative; the complications don’t always stick. It is to Antosca’s great credit that when his knitting comes together in literally almost the final pages of the book, it’s almost as if the pages read previously seem to shape shift, other, hidden words perhaps welling up from in the page, illuminating the paper, the ink and everything brought by it in such different light that you almost felt like you’ve read a different book. A different book with bigger hands and sicker breath that you’d first imagined. A book buried in itself.

Fires by Nick Antosca
Impetus Press
ISBN: 0977669327
195 Pages