THIS BOOK will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about fireworks -- and much, much more.
You remember George Plimpton: he's the guy who makes a career out of poking his finger into our celebrity icons to see if they are real. He boxed a round with Archie Moore and wrote a book about it. He ran some scrimmages with the Detroit Lions and wrote a book about that. With Jean Stein, he turned the sad story of Edie Sedgwick, the golden girl of druggie-chic, into a brilliant, horrifying biography. He has also written about Robert Kennedy and likes to remind people that he is editor of The Paris Review.
But what George Plimpton is really about is fireworks.
Perhaps you weren't aware that he is fireworks commissioner of New York City.
"I kept pestering the mayor and other officials to allow more fireworks shows, especially in great barrages out of Central Park," he writes, "to such a degree that the mayor finally made me his fireworks commissioner, a completely bogus designation which is not on the city rolls but one which I have perpetuated through succeeding administrations . . ."
Some people like to drop the word "East Hampton." But Plimpton, who lives there (some social critics define as a distinct class those people whose name ends in '-impton' and whose address ends in '-ampton'), takes arcane pleasure in dropping the fact that he was a demolition specialist in the Army.
His book chronicles not only the history of fireworks and the development of the modern science of making crowds go "ooooh!" but also his own involvement with the craft. We are there when he helps send up the American entry in the Monaco international fireworks competition. We are there when he makes his own three-inch shell and touches it off at a convention of fireworks crazies. We are there, interminably, when he and the Harvard Lampoon set out to crack the Guinness Book of World Records for the biggest firework.
But if the Lampoon chapter is tiresome it is mainly because the Lampoon people themselves are tiresome. Plimpton eventually shakes loose of them and goes on his way, earnestly talking fireworks.
We meet famous fireworks clans like the Gruccis and Zambellis. We learn of fireworks festivals all over the world. We are treated to marvelous illustrations, ancient and modern, and technical jargon, and wonderful bits of lore, such as the 180-foot-high Silver Jubilee firework portrait of Queen Victoria that winked uncontrollably, to the shocked amusement of everyone but the queen.
Even the 60-page glossary is packed with lore. In 1886 one Wilson P. Foss was standing 12 feet away from 900 pounds of nitroglycerine when it blew, leaving a 30-foot crater and lifting Foss clear around a bend in the Saranac River.
Rescuers rushed up, expecting to find "perhaps a bit of shoelace. To their astonishment Foss appeared, striding around the river bend. All his clothes below the waistline had disappeared. He had approximately 200 spruce splinters in him. According to witnesses his first remark was, 'What's the matter?'"
A good line. Generally, however, one had expected this world-class bon vivant to be somewhat lighter and wittier. He gives us something almost as good: the enthusiasm of the fanatic.
Now, all fanatics are charming off duty, but few are when they get on their subject. George Plimpton is one of the few. Fireworks is definitely charming.