In the respect, it's the hottest book of the summer.
This novel about a small town devoured by a forest fire is a smoldering success. And by the time you've reluctantly turned the last page, it is obvious that Nebuchadnezzar himself can't hold a candle to Richard Snow, who has transmuted a historical catastrophe into a story of horror and heroism that is sharp and sear as a nightmare.
It's the arid Indian summer of 1894 in the timber country of upstate Minnesota, and all around the village of Hinckley, prickly tensions are building:
In a passenger car of the St. Paul & Dutch, traveling salesman Scott Keegan squirms on the hot plush, trapped in the endless prattle of his seatmate, a drummer named Pudgy LeMoyne. At the throttle, aging engineer Jim Root nags his young fireman, Jack McGowan.
In town, barber Albert Craid has just had an "ugly, acrid little squabble" with his wife. Pretty Betty Langdon grows sulky at her placid beau, telegrapher Tom Dunn. Ten-year-old Jemmy Stockholm fidgets in boyish irritation. A dozen more characters -- some fictional, some historical, all masterfully and economically evoked -- chafe in the restless swelter.
The town is about to explode into an unthinkable frenzy of flame. This is no mere hay-barn holocaust, good for a few days of gin-mill palaver. The fire that Snow recreats is a thundering hell of combustion big as the sky. The very air is ablaze, a rolling furnace of pitch and pine:
". . . soon the sky came down, a thick tensile bulging like sheet iron being bent, and fire dripping through the joints in it . . . A man pulled off his jacket and tried to beat out the dress of a woman who was thrashing at his feet; but the fire ran up his coat and in seconds he was dying on the ground beside her. After that, the crowd drew away from the burning people, gave them a seven-foot circle to kick out their lives in."
As the smoke blackens midday to midnight blindness, the blaze grows stronger, flash-kindles the frame buildings of Hinckley and sucks the lungs from its panicked townspeople, incinerates lumberjacks where they stand and advances on Jim Root's engine:
"A mountain of flame taller than any building he'd ever seen drew all the yellow light into it. Smooth and solid as custard, the color of blood and lemons and egg yolk, it rolled toward the train."
As the inferno feeds, big men find sour pockets of cowardice at the bottom of their souls, and the shallowest ciphers reveal unimagined depths of strength. In Snow's eloquently spare prose, astonishing varieties of simple human courage and selflessness are made moving without melodrama, just as the burning is ghastly without being lurid.
Before the fire consumes the last half of the book, however, the narrative swells with humorous sketches (often featuring the indefatigable LeMoyne -- "I want a beer, and I want to drink it in another town"), wry encounters, romantic interludes and the cheerful vulgarity of the townsmenhs dialogue. And since Snow is managing editor of American Heritage magazine, the story's authenticity is abundantly ornamented with period detail, from the conrols of steam locomotives to the satanic engines of a lumber mill to the barbershop with its shiny mugs.
It is to the author's credit that such illustrative filigree never seems gratuitous nor interrupts the smooth shape of the story. And because no central character narrows the action, the limited subject gains a sense of mythic adversity as the fury of the fire is pitted against the collective humanity of Hinckley.
Snow has commanded his sizable artistry into such a small scale that it may go unnoticed in the general run of fiction. That would be a mistake. Many slim novels offer more smoke than fire, but Snow is a four-alarm writer.