It was baseball that brought me to Oxford, Mississippi in June of 1992, and my arrival coincided with the publication of the first issue of The Oxford American, an audacious magazine that was, and still is, dedicated to great writing from the South. And while not all of the pieces in that inaugural issue originated in the town that Faulkner made famous, a few did. One was by the internationally famous, insanely successful and crazy wealthy author John Grisham and one was by the somewhat less famous Larry Brown.
By 1992, Brown had already won the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award and later that year would win the Southern Book Critics Circle Award, but it was the essay “Fire Notes”, which I read in that premiere issue of The Oxford American, and which later became the impetus for this book, that made me a fan. (You can read that essay here and you should because it’s really good)
That essay was ostensibly about Brown’s seventeen years as a member of the Oxford Mississippi Fire Department, but you can tell that it grew out of a deeper place than that in the first few sentences. Because what strikes one right out of the box, as it does with the longer piece it evolved into, is how inside it is. So deep inside that it has it’s own gravitational pull, immediately dragging you, wherever you are, into that dark Mississippi night as Brown sits in that old fire house on Lamar, bored and nervous, unable to sleep, trying to write himself out of whatever it is that ails him.
That’s because really, “On Fire” is a book about writing. About trying to write. About a man trying to write his way out of boredom and confusion and pain and chaos. Any writer, any artist, any person who eats his bread by the sweat of his brain and not his brawn, any human trying to earn a living by making sense of things amidst a universe that says, and rightly so when you come down to it, “What the hell do you want to do that for?” will be able to sympathize.
But there’s more. Because “On Fire” is also about the community that is created by work. Especially the community created by hard, stressful work.
Now far be it for me to compare the glamourous world of Madison Avenue to the occasionally mind-numbingly boring and nightmarishly gruesome experiences of the firehouse at 658 North Lamar. That would be absurd.
But what isn’t absurd is our fascination with how people actually come together and create things bigger than themselves and how relationships are formed regardless of the task at hand. That’s why shows as different as “The West Wing” and “Mad Men” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show” appeal to us. Not purely because of our enchantment with politics or advertising or television comedy. But because we like to see how people endure the slings and arrows of outrageous co-workers, bosses, clients, spouses, friends and lovers to make something. Let he who has not pulled a string of all-nighters with people he’d much rather kick in the eye – and yet whom he would go to battle for in a heartbeat – cast the first stone.
Brown describes it this way:
“I’m sitting in the yard having a cigarette, watching the house catch up again.
Rob says, Brown.
I look around. He opens up a charged two-and-a-half-inch handline and knocks my helmet off my head. I’m engulfed in a wall of water. He actually rolls me across the yard with it. It’s hitting my ass like somebody’s big fist. He rolls me over and over with it. The whole company stands and laughs and hoots. All I can do is roll up in a ball and wait for them to get tired of it. That nozzle is flowing 250 gallons a minute. And every one of them would save my ass should my ass need saving.”
And lastly, this is a book about the people that most of us spend most of our lives marketing to. And this is how they live their lives. Sure, “On Fire” was written over twenty years ago. Before the internet. Cellphones. Social Media. Sure, it’s about one small section of one very unusual state. But you want to know what Americans are like? How they think? What they worry about? How they get through their days? How they come together and don’t come together at the most ridiculous and important intersections of life? Still?