Not on Fire, But Burning by Greg Hrbek

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Reviewed by Annabel 

The prologue of this novel set in the near future begins in some style. College student Skyler Wakefield opted to stay and work as a babysitter for five-year-old Noah, rather than go home for the summer. Suddenly Noah calls her to the window which has views of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco:

What Skyler saw through the window confused her: A plane. But not a plane. It was too bright. […] Slowing and lifting – all of this happening very quickly – as it approached the bridge, seeming to shrug its wings like some impossible dragon, though there were no wings, and yet something, metal or fire or a bolt of electromagnetism, was severing the suspension cables; and as each red cable lashed whiplike into the air, the roadway fell by stages to the pure morning blue of the water.

The bridge destroyed, the thing explodes creating a toxic mushroom cloud. Skyler and Noah run, and make it to the hospital, but are triaged with red tags – you can’t outrun the radiation…

Flash-forward a few years to meet Skyler’s little brother Dorian. He’s now twelve and living in the New York suburbs. He lives in a very different world. Although no-one knows who blew up the bridge, most Muslims have been ghettoised on old Indian reservations. Anti-Muslim feeling runs high, and Dorian has been in trouble after a school visit to a mosque for scrawling graffiti in the toilets, but he is not really a bad boy, just occasionally in the wrong company.

Cut to Dakota. In one of the camps, Karim is having a last smoke of opium with his two best friends before they go their separate ways.

The three orphans lie back on the cool tile floor; and as each one feels his soul levitating just above his physical self, he thinks of the sheikh, Abdul-Aziz, who has said to them, ‘You may be going your separate ways now, my sons, but very soon you will be together in the highest garden of heaven. It is just a matter of time.’

Karim dreams of being with his family again in Paradise.

When you’re seven, eight, you make plastic explosives from Play-Doh and fill up matchboxes with rusty nails and tape it all onto a belt and it’s a fucking breeze to kill yourself. Then, one day, you’re eleven, twelve, and you’re a part of something real, more important than childhood, and more important than yourself.

You can plainly see how easy it is for an orphan to be radicalised, his parents having been killed in a drone strike – but it was a shock to find out that Karim was not yet a teenager. Will Banfelder is a retired soldier. Living alone, he wants to do something good with his life, and decides to adopt a Muslim orphan – Karim – he can be the boy’s surrogate grandfather. Although it’s obvious to Will that Karim is a drug addict, he has no idea he has been radicalised. Banfelder takes Karim to the mini-golf one evening, and waiting for their turn at the ninth hole:

…there was a baby secured in a sort of vest to its father’s chest as if the infant were a type of explosive, which made you ask: what if I was wearing the belt now, what if this was the appointed time and place…

It all reinforces the thoughts we already have that Karim is a sleeper, and my heart was in my mouth each time Karim had dark thoughts about becoming a martyr. Once Banfelder thinks Karim is settling in, he devises a pool party so Karim can make some friends. Banfelder lives next door to the Wakefields so Dorian and his pals are invited, plus some children of local rich Muslim families. Inevitably, they all get into a fight; Omar winds up Karim to hit Dorian and this is when the trouble really begins and life will get out of control for all involved.

Ultimately, this is Dorian’s story as much as Karim’s. Dorian’s family are classically dysfunctional. Dad is an author who can’t write, mum is depressed, his big brother has left home and there’s a hole which ought to be filled by a daughter. Dorian is sure he once had a sister, but she doesn’t exist. Having been introduced to Skyler in the SF prologue, then had her taken her out of the picture to tell Dorian and Karims’ stories in which she doesn’t feature, we are thrust into a sense of being in a multiverse rather than universe. This reminded me slightly of Christopher Priest’s near future novel The Adjacent [reviewed here] in which a multiplicity of characters and timelines all echo each other, periodically converging.

Whether we have a multiplicity of universes or not in this novel, the one thing that doesn’t change is time – it always marches forward, but even here what goes around, comes around.

The whole story is framed by a real phenomenon – the cyclical emergence of ‘The Great Eastern Brood’ of periodal cicadas (aka Brood X, one of many!). The cicadas will always be back. The cicadas tunnel to the surface of the ground, lay eggs and die over a period of a few weeks. The nymphs tunnel back down and lay dormant for seventeen years. Being rather insect-phobic, I remember crossing my fingers when I found out that a holiday booked to the US in 2004 might coincide with their emergence – Phew! We missed them. They’re due to return in 2021 and 2038, when this novel is set. The novel is full of the pesky creatures, chirruping away, getting trodden on, run over, hosed down. I imagine that living in affected areas can be challenging at times?

However you wish to view this novel – as speculative fiction, a family drama or cautionary tale, as a critique of the way we live now, Hrbek’s story challenges us to admit that it doesn’t always have to be this way. Making the right choices is never straight-forward; ever more so in the post 9/11 world. The cause and effect of the characters’ actions power this novel towards some thought-provoking consequences, scenarios which gripped me from the start.  

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Greg Hrbek, Not on Fire, But Burning (Melville House: New York, 2015). 9781612194530, 263 pp., hardback.

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