Elissa Wald’s novel Holding Fire, A Love Story, is so incredibly lame it defies rational criticism. Pat Conroy is quoted on the back cover, where he proclaims Wald is a “brave new voice in American fiction.” If he truly believes this, I have a bridge for sale and I can give him such a deal. Not only does the book suffer from lack of a coherent plot, the premise is sexist, inane, and insulting. The unspeakable loss of firefighters on September 11th makes this book even more insipid. I fear the NYFD link will make discriminating book buyers think this drivel is legimate reading.
The book is a mass of poorly prefaced clichés. The stripper, who’s really a “good girl” and who, of course, can cook like a sonofabitch. She’s clean, wholesome, and downright beautiful, she just has this lap dancing hobby that earns her a little spare change. She’s fresh-faced, decent, moral . . . really, don’t judge her by her rape fantasies. She’s waiting for her big break, the one where Simon and Schuster swoop down in person from the ivory tower of publishing and advance her thousands for the book she never seems to be writing. Reminds me of the prostitutes in Vegas who are working on their PhDs in psychology, or the Julia Roberts happy hooker routines that have been repeated too many times via Hollywood screen shots. And then there’s the obligatory crazed Vietnam veteran, complete with flashbacks, manic-depression, substance abuse, membership in AA, and inability to truly commit to a woman . . . this guy even has a love affair with an older man (but NO sex, he’s got to preserve his firefighter manhood). The homosexual, the one in love with the firefighter, is, of course, Catholic and thinks being gay is a sin, so he can’t consummate his love-needs, he just sleeps with the Vietnam vet firefighter and hugs him. But that’s okay because the firefighter’s buddy has homo-erotic fantasies and has the good-girl stripper wear a strap-on and do the big nasty to his anus. Yes, it’s that gross. Yes, it’s that inane.
Wes, the un-gay homosexual, on a typical day:
“The day had been uneventful by design. He went to mass that morning to kneel at the altar, take the body of Christ onto his tongue and thrill to the brief invasion of his mouth by the priest’s hand.”
The portrait of a firefighter, you know, the rogue Kurt Russell-type who slams his way into a fire, saving women, children, and kittens, winning awards but only burning the tips of his ears . . . Wald really buys into this. As Wald says, “Thank God for the firehouse, a refuge from anything female. He could escape to it before he lost his mind and put this thing on the table. His brothers and elders would keep his dilemma within the firehouse wall as and give him good advice if anyone could.” But I’ve got news for Wald. Hold on to your strap-on penis, little lady, there are WOMEN firefighters. Apparently when Wald was doing her research, she only found finely chiseled, poorly grammared, Adonis-like hunks who thought only of sex, voyeurism, and singing Irish ditties while drinking Guinness during their off-duty hours.
But we can’t forget about Alicia, the happy un-unhooker:
“When she discussed him [Jake, not Johsua, the Vietnam vet] with her friends, she didn’t say she was in love. Or in pain. Or in despair. She said he was a great lay. This was allowed. These days a girl was allowed to get laid. She was permitted (as long as she insisted on condoms) to take whatever measures were necessary to satisfy, gratify, herself. The only forbidden thing, really, was to need a man. And so, therefore, Alicia was merely enjoying Jake. Toying with him, even. He was, perhaps, her favorite toy . . . Working as a stripper made it easier to maintain this image . . . “
Yeeowwwza. It’s okay, though, because Jake dumps her and she gets to have sex with the psychotic Joshua, the heroic Vietnam vet who rescued her from a fire when she was five, the fireman she’d been searching for all her life. Apparently having sex with all the fireman she could was the only way to conduct such a search. And Wald’s sexual scenes aren’t the least bit titilating. The characters spend most of their time justifying their actions and trying to make the audience like them.
The book is not only poorly written, it is poorly edited. Context Books, the folks who brought you The United States of America versus Theodore John Kaczynski Ethics, Power and the Invention of the Unabomber by Michael Mello, might need to grab a few interns from an English department rather than from their stable of plumber’s apprentices, or, perhaps, hire proofreaders. Font sizes vary, sentences separate mid-paragraph, and the problems Wald has with her verb tenses—geezlouise. Wald runs in and out of the past, then tries to cover up her gaffs with “if she knew then what she knew now” but it doesn’t help. I wondered, however briefly, if maybe Wald wasn’t trying the “Cormac McCarthy verb tense shuffle” on us with this paragraph:
“He could set up camp there after a day’s expedition, or he could fish there, from the water’s edge, if he hadn’t been able to get on a boat. When darkness fell, he dug a pit for a fire and cooked whatever the afternoon had yielded. Now August had come, and with it the tuna. Tuna he preferred to eat raw, skinning and cleaning and cutting it into strips. In August, his fires were for reading purposes only.”
Once I’d finished the book, I understood why the Harry Crews’ quote occupied the first pages of the book. In the last book I read by Crews, the main character, a young teenage girl, got her jollies by humping the stump of a one-armed man while they sat in a near boiling temperature hot tub. Apparently Wald and Crews like to write about the kinky and implausible. Crews, though, is extremely graphic. Wald wants to be but doesn’t quite hit the mark.
I offered this book to a female firefighter to read. She gave it back after reading the first thirty six pages. The strap-on fantasy was too much for her. “I thought the book was going to be about firefighting,” she said, “I can’t read any more, it will haunt me when I’m at the station. Gag me. Most of the men I work with are over forty, pudgy, and have been married for a zillion years. Maybe I need to move to Brooklyn for that chisled, square-jawed firefighting man of my dreams.” She did offer to critique the firefighting scenes, judge the technical merit, but there weren’t enough paragraphs on the subject to justify my giving the book back to her.
The publishers often send promotional geegaws with the books we review. Holding Fire came with a book of matches publicizing the release of the novel. I think I know what to do with them . . .