Junger's 'Fire' -- not the Gettysburg Address

October 07, 2001|By Candus Thomson | By Candus Thomson,Sun Staff

Fire, by Sebastian Junger. W.W. Norton. 224 pages. $24.95.

Sebastian Junger has sophomore slump. How else can one explain, Fire, the mish-mash that is his second book?

Four years ago, Junger took readers inside the world of commercial fishing and violent weather with The Perfect Storm, a highly acclaimed best-seller turned into a mediocre movie.

The riveting tale moved smartly in 227 pages from the docks of Gloucester, Mass., to monster waves in the North Atlantic. Unfortunately for readers, Fire goes nowhere.

Instead, the slim volume feels like a bunch of magazine stories hastily stitched together to satisfy a book contract.

Junger casts no light on the book's raison d'etre in the introduction, which seems to have as its theme that the author doesn't know what he wants to be when he grows up. Like many little boys, he's looking for something bright and shiny that goes fast and makes noise. Perhaps, he reasons, he can scratch his itch by becoming a foreign correspondent.

So somewhat confusingly, the book opens in Idaho with the title piece, written in 1992, about the brave smokejumpers who parachute into forests to battle gargantuan, and sometimes deadly, fires.

When the reader reaches the end of the chapter, there's a note from Junger acknowledging that "there have been many changes in the way wildfire is fought in the United States," but "I wanted to alter the original work as little as possible."

Why? It's not the Gettysburg Address.

The second chapter stays with the inferno theme, dealing with those who fought a horrific fire in Colorado that killed 12 firefighters. But there's nothing particularly compelling about Junger's storytelling.

For a better understanding of smokejumpers, a reader would be much better served by Young Men and Fire, written by Norman Macclean (A River Runs Through It). And for a better account of that 1994 fire, you'd be better off with Fire on the Mountain, by Macclean's son and former Chicago Tribune journalist, John Macclean.

On and on Junger dashes, from a whale hunt in the Caribbean to genocide in Kosovo to the taking of America hostages by Kashmir rebels. Unfortunately, while his exploits are planet-wide, his reflection on events and his feeling for his subjects are only egg-shell deep.

There is a curious chapter, a 1999 reprint from Harper's magazine, in which Junger reports from Greek Cyprus while a colleague reports from Turkish Cyprus. It's not a bad story, it's a "so what" story built on a gimmick and served to readers like a plate of leftovers.

And speaking of leftovers, Junger drops another one into the book, "The Forensics of War," that appeared in Vanity Fair and won the 1999 National Magazine Award for reporting. Call me crazy, but for $24, a reader ought not get 59 pages of previously published material in a 256-page book.

Junger saves the best for last, with a look at the death trail used by traders in Sierra Leone to get diamonds from mines to market, and a front-line view of war in Afghanistan between government troops and Taliban extremists. The former may make you rethink the symbol of wealth. The latter is a useful window into a country Americans may soon know too well.

Candus Thomson, an outdoors writer at The Sun, has hiked the Swiss Alps, the Presidential Range in New Hampshire and across the Grand Canyon. She has worked as a features editor, bureau chief and state reporter in her 12 years at The Sun. Before that, she was a reporter in Massachusetts and New Hampshire for 16 years. She lives in Silver Spring.

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