It's been said that firefighters come alive when they're battling a blaze. Earl Emerson's novel, "Vertical Burn," comes alive when he's describing one.
That shouldn't surprise: Emerson's not only a novelist, he's a lieutenant in the Seattle Fire Department. He's at his best when he's depicting the rush of suiting up or how moisture in the grass sizzles when a fireman just out of a blaze puts a helmet down.
Unfortunately, in between the fires that hold up "Vertical Burn," the excitement ebbs, leaving too much time to ponder one unacceptable plot twist after another.
John Finney is the stalwart fireman at the center of Emerson's story. He's fairly standard issue: strong and still, unsuccessful at love but true to the corps of firefighters he soldiers with. His brother is a firefighter, and his dad is a battalion chief. Finney rebelled plenty, but couldn't resist the alarm's siren call. Firefighting is his life.
That's why his life goes into meltdown when, on a call at Leary Way in the predawn, his dearest department pal dies beneath the rubble of a collapsed wall. The shower of brick shatters Finney's shoulder, and he suffers severe burns and carbon monoxide poisoning. Yet rather than garnering praise, Finney is branded as a guy who panicked and abandoned his partner.
That's not all that's askew: Finney and his partner had headed deep into the fire because of a report of a band practicing, its members possibly trapped. But they aren't there and no one ever wonders what became of them. The command structure misjudges the layout of the building and the danger there, so Finney and his partner get no aid. When two firefighters finally arrive, they're no help, but one of them becomes chief anyway after heaping blame on Finney.
As twisted plots go, it's suspect, but that's just part one.
After responding to his next fire, Finney is sitting in his rig without anything to do, so he goes over to inspect a nearby house. Naturally, it's been set up for arson, and it comes into play later as the plot boils. From tens of thousands of houses in Seattle, he happens to walk into this one. What are the odds?
As the tale proceeds, it's tension that should mount; instead it's the implausibility.
But, while Emerson stumbles on the plot, he has other gifts to share. When that house goes up, he describes it from the inside, saying the flames spread across the ceiling "like angry marmalade. . . . Beyond the door everything was aglow. Under different circumstances it would have been beautiful."
At yet another fire, Finney and crew arrive to find other companies "had clustered like bees around a concrete chrysanthemum," and a melted rain gutter was hanging loose "like a paste-on eyebrow dangling off a drunken actor."
Writing from experience is an author's axiom, and Emerson is following it when he is most successful. But the dictum's double edge is that excessive use of jargon can slow down readers. Emerson indulges in fire speak - "MSA facepieces," "Halligan/flathead axe combinations," and feeding rope "through a couple of prusiks," but he more often comes across as knowledgeable rather than as a showoff.
In many ways, "Vertical Burn" evokes "Backdraft," the 1991 Ron Howard film that convincingly portrayed the challenges firefighters encounter. The movie was nominated for three Academy Awards, all for technical accomplishment. Its problem was that it wasn't very entertaining.
Though "Vertical Burn" is a better book than "Backdraft" was a movie, Emerson comes across as a firefighter who writes books, rather than as a novelist creating worlds worth visiting. When his last fire's put out, will he have anything left to say?