“Fire,” by Sebastian Junger, W.W. Norton & Co., 256 pages, $24.95
This is the age we live in: Skyscrapers vanish at the whim of terrorists, forests the size of small countries incinerate at the drop of a match, a digital virus named “love” wipes out a nation’s communications. So it makes a certain sense, doesn’t it, to be educated about catastrophe.
Sebastian Junger is a student of disaster. He made a name for himself documenting the natural and human elements that composed “The Perfect Storm” — the hurricane that devastated the Northeast and doomed the Andrea Gail, a Gloucester, Mass.-based fishing boat. His newly-released second book, “Fire,” is a sparse but timely collection of far-flung journalistic dispatches that again pries into the causes and effects of nature’s simple brutality.
With “Fire,” Junger has gone further in a direction that earns him the title of Cataclysm’s Chronicler. If he’s not careful, though, he risks the additional moniker, “Profiteer of Pain.”
Culled from within the parachutes of smokejumpers dropping into 3,000-degree blazes, from the bows of whaling ships as they pursue 1,000-ton sea beasts, and from inside bunkers in Kosovo and Afghanistan where guerrillas plot destruction large and small, the essays in “Fire” share a thread of life-threatening danger. Junger spans the globe to bring us a diverse group of people who face danger head-on.
Whether in the burning forests of the American West, in civil wars inside Sierra Leone or Cyprus, or among aboriginal whalers on the little-known Caribbean island of Bequia, these people share Junger’s swashbuckling first-person derring-do, exhibiting in their own voices that certain ego-driven self-aggrandizement that goes with being fearless and living on the edge.
“I suspect people climb mountains or sail across the Pacific for the same reason: Their success, their very survival, depends entirely on their own skill and judgment. That process of testing yourself is one of the most thrilling things I know,” Junger said in an interview, sharing the sentiment of those in the lines of “Fire.”
Thankfully, the author is out for more than adrenaline or mere sensationalism.
Junger uses the sparks and blood of civil wars, fur trappers and forest fires as a springboard to explain the inner workings and historical context of some of the world’s most explosive and significant dangers. As such, “Fire” reveals the hot core beneath the world’s flames, getting close to the heat of history so readers can appreciate burning human dramas from a safe distance.
We sweep from the Storm King Mountain wildfire, which killed 14 firefighters near Grand Junction, Colo., in 1994, to a Caribbean village in 1995 where the world’s last known whale hunter shows off a rope burn that goes clear to the bone. We follow the panicked logic of a kidnapped American ridden with dysentery as he tries escaping into the wilds of Kashmir. We go house-to-house amid the opening shots of the civil war in Kosovo in 1997, peeking in on the houses of villagers, the holes in the backs of their heads still smoking … and so on, into some of the least accessible but most compelling global hot zones.
Junger doesn’t just dwell on sordid detail, though his detached, almost deadpan, brand of journalism does revel in those crystallized truths that dangle on the quivering tip of danger.
Caught in a shootout in Kosovo, Junger rhapsodizes: “It’s amazing how fast animosity vanishes among people who are suddenly getting shot at.” Watching an instructional firefighting video, he sees how a chainsaw is “halfway through the trunk when flames started pouring out like liquid.”
We also get crucial history: simple summaries of the India-Pakistan conflict (always threatening to go nuclear) or how Slobodan Milosevic parlayed generations of clan division into years of brutal ethnic slaughter.
Most significant is “The Lion in Winter,” which describes how the Taliban emerged from Muslim schools in Pakistan to take over Afghanistan and impose iron-fisted fundamentalism upon a half-willing public.
Junger follows Ahmed Shah Massoud as he plot’s the Taliban’s downfall. The story is prescient not only for the recent thrust of Afghanistan into American consciousness: Massoud was assassinated this month after years spearheading the only credible force trying to overthrow the Taliban.
“(Afghanistan) is an unbelievably beautiful country,” Junger said. “The people were generous and hospitable despite their terrible poverty, and the war was being carried out on a scale that I had never previously experienced.”
Thrilling, educational, colorful … “Fire” is a riveting read.
But stories that are vibrant and vicarious also tread perilously close to vulturous and voyeuristic. As we are invited into the misery of the unfortunate, “Fire” is a bit too similar to one of those “World’s Scariest Home Videos” shows: a dose of room-service adrenaline for couch potatoes.
Junger describes the fascination this way:
“Vast swaths of American society who live in suburbs or ‘nice’ parts of town, who work at office jobs and look forward to retiring on their 401(k) plans, have found themselves without significant challenges in their lives,” he said.
So some people go bungee-jumping or skydiving. Others write books about it.
“Fire” courts the same criticism that followed “The Perfect Storm” during its 3 1/2-year reign on the New York Times best-seller list, namely: Junger often doesn’t let hard facts get in the way of a good story.
At the end of the essay on the Kashmiri kidnappings, Junger moves cleverly into a theoretical ending as he portrays Don Hutchings, one of the missing, “peering out through a chink in the wall, (as he) watches night come sweeping up the valley one more time.” Never mind that this man has been missing since 1990 and is almost certainly dead. Watching him endure a decade-long captivity makes for a compelling ending.
The trip from nature writer to adventure writer to danger writer has Junger upping the ante on the “adventure memoir” genre.
One can only guess where the thrill-seeking takes him next, but this author should thrive. Junger is like a moth driven to danger’s flame. And it’s hard, after all, to imagine a world without catastrophe.