— How Fire Runs, by Charles Dodd White (Swallow Press, 2020)
Compared to national politics, it often seems that local governmental affairs involve lower stakes and mundane concerns. That outlook is just as frequently mistaken. History has shown us repeatedly that grassroots movements or social malaises can brew under the radar of the national media only to erupt on the national stage with explosive force. This inattention explains in part the many, pundits and ordinary people alike, who were surprised by the results of the Presidential election in 2016. It also may help explain why in recent years we have seen more novels that deal with social concerns instead of the depoliticized fare one can typically find on best seller lists and grocery store racks.
This year has brought us several interesting novels that speak to the current political climate. These include John Woods’ Lady Chevy (reviewed in the July issue of The Observer) and Charles Dodd White’s newly released How Fire Runs.
In White’s ornate but precise prose, the novel sets the mood with an ominous opening scene: Six men arrive in the evening at an abandoned asylum in Elizabethon, Carter County, Tennessee. The sight of the crew unloading boxes takes a different connotation when they set up a pole at the end of the driveway and fly a swastika flag. The following morning, county commissioner Gerald Pickens, who lives near the asylum, goes into a panic at the sight of the red flag and fires his rifle at a car backing out of the building.
As the county commission deliberates on whether to punish Pickens, it becomes known that the new arrivals to Elizabethon seek to create a racial separatist community called Little Europe. The controversial group is not exclusively comprised of true believers and it counts within its ranks tortured ex-con Harrison and other outcasts with their own agendas. Their leader, Gavin Noon, is a comparatively polished ideologue. When another commissioner, Kyle Pettus, resigns his position, Noon seizes the opportunity to run for his seat as the community threatens to be torn apart in an acrimonious race.
While Noon’s threat seems to be primarily symbolic — as one of his political allies puts it, “our greatest power on the national stage is in the imagination of those who detest us. We are the minority” — his presence makes people wonder how ripe Elizabethton is for a movement of this nature. Pettus describes seeing Confederate flags across Carter County and how they have become a cultural signifier that exceeds any historical connotations: “Rebel flags no further than a quarter of a mile apart even though just about every family up here was pro-Union during the Civil War. But history doesn’t have a damn thing to do with it anymore.”
In the case of one of Noon’s crew members, Delilah, history and politics are secondary considerations. “We’re all just using each other here,” she tells Noon. “That’s why this place has a chance to do something. Not because of your ideas. What makes this place something different is that it’s full of people who are hungry, hungry in a way that people who’ve had plenty to eat all their lives can’t ever understand. And it’s them not understanding that makes them act in a way a hungry dog can smell.”
These moments of introspection from White’s well-delineated characters help How Fire Runs straddle successfully between the contingent and the literary, transcending the “ripped from the headlines” nature of many works dealing with political issues. Loss and the need to build an identity through connections that are more intimate than ethnic kinship is a theme that pulsates just as strongly in the personal stories of Kyle, Gavin, and Delilah’s partner, Harrison. Coupled with the tense pacing of a thriller and an apocalyptic ending which, as in earlier works like A Shelter of Others (2014), pits its characters against the fury of nature, White’s novel is an artful and suspenseful page turner.
Born in Texas, raised in Chile, and currently living in Shepherdstown, Gonzalo is a fiction writer with books published in Spain, Italy, and Chile. His stories have appeared in Boulevard, Goliad, and The Texas Review.By Gonzalo Baeza