A cautionary word, issued out of extreme admiration and enthusiasm for Monica Hesse’s “American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land”: Do not be deterred by its chewy beginning and gooey finish. The author introduces so many characters in her opening chapters that it feels like she’s emptying a tube of pickup sticks onto your head, and she offers enough dime-store aperçus in her closing chapters to make you hear them in the voice of Forrest Gump.
If I am harsh, it is only because I am now invested in Hesse’s career. This book is her literary nonfiction debut, and it’s clear that she has talent to burn. Its excesses notwithstanding, “American Fire” is an excellent summer vacation read. It has all the elements of a lively crime procedural: courtroom drama, forensic trivia, toothsome gossip, vexed sex.
It also happens to be a good portrait of a region in economic decline.
On Nov. 12, 2012, the firefighters of Accomack County in Virginia responded to the first of 67 fires in a five-month arson spree. The area was an easy target. The state’s Eastern Shore, a 70-mile-long exclamation point off the coast of Virginia Beach, is isolated and filled with abandoned houses, ripe for combustion.
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It spoils nothing to say that a local mechanic named Charlie Smith ultimately claimed responsibility for the crimes. It’s part of the book’s jacket copy; Hesse covered his trial for The Washington Post. What’s suspenseful is how Smith got caught, and what’s mysterious is why he did it – and how his fiancée, Tonya Bundick, figured into this unsavory bacchanal.
Bundick, with her frisky bar-top dancing and legs the color of sliced cantaloupe – her commitment to tanning is impressive – is one of the great femmes fatales in recent American crime stories. Smith is also a great improbable outlaw, decent and dull-witted in the manner of the Coen brothers’ most lovable nincompoops. Even before his fire-starting bender, he’d gone to prison twice, the first time for forgery and the second for stealing a cordless drill, an air compressor, a battery charger and a propane torch from someone’s home.
When interrogated about the break-in, Smith didn’t make any excuses. Instead, he offered a simple elaboration: “The battery charger was for the cordless drill.”
But incinerating abandoned houses – this was an altogether different kind of offense from burglary and forgery. “Arson,” as Hesse notes, “is a weird crime.” Unlike theft, it doesn’t line your pockets or get you something you covet; unlike murder, it doesn’t rid you of someone you despise. It often seems to satisfy an emotional desire, rather than a material one, which may be why it has captivated the imaginations of so many students of the mind. In the late 1700s, German scientists blamed it on the trauma of menstruation, a theory that had to be discarded when it was determined that most arsonists were men.
I’ll leave it for readers to discover the psychological origins of this particular fire-setting orgy. Let’s just say that Smith would have made quite a case study for Freud. Bundick too, for that matter.
In the mainstream press, the fires of Accomack County were framed as a war on rural America. They were the perfect literalization of a metaphor: The countryside was becoming a burnt husk of itself. And in Hesse’s retelling, it’s hard not to view the Virginia Eastern Shore as a paradise in distress.
To what precise extent poverty, both social and economic, was responsible for those 67 fires is hard to say. But it surely didn’t help.
Hesse manages to wring tension and excitement out of a story with a known ending. One of the most elusive skills in narrative nonfiction, and Hesse has it, is knowing the proper order to arrange your facts. She also superbly conveys the disruptive, confusing effect the fires had on the Eastern Shore community. Law enforcement officials slept in tents. Security cameras hung from trees. Neighbors suspected neighbors. They also rallied to the occasion, showing the all-volunteer firefighting departments their love and support.
“The stockpiles of Gatorade got bigger,” Hesse writes, “and the sense of community outrage and pride got bigger, and the firefighters became intimately acquainted with the baking skills of every sympathetic household on the Eastern Shore.”
Hesse is a lovely stylist. She has a flair for creating a sense of place. Her character sketches are models of compression, easily collapsible into lockets. Here’s an early description of Smith:
“Charlie’s voice was on the slow side, his weight was on the roly-poly side, and when he got confused or embarrassed – or when he was amused or flustered or bored or sometimes for reasons even he wasn’t sure of – he would burst into a high-pitched giggle that he couldn’t control.”
Self-control was always an issue for Charlie. He’d spent a lifetime struggling with addiction. Yet he couldn’t blame his crimes on drug use, as much as he wanted to; he was clean at the time.
But he still smoked cigarettes. At some point during his interrogation, he asked for one. The investigators said yes and called to get him a lighter.
“I got a lighter,” he replied.
“American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land”
By Monica Hesse
Liveright, 255 pages