Because a Fire Was in My Head
By Lynn Stegner
University of Nebraska Press / 273 pages / $24.95
Lynn Stegner, who was twice nominated for the National Book Award, looks to Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, and Scarlet O'Hara for her portrayal of the manipulative, unscrupulous, but needy temptress, Kate Riley, heroine of the novel Because a Fire Was in My Head.
Like her literary predecessors, Kate cannot function without a man in her life, and for the life of her, she cannot choose the right man. Either the men don't share Kate's sexual proclivities and therefore cannot keep her interest, or they're too much like Kate and can beat her at her own game.
The story opens on June 3, 1970, before the CT-Scan and the MRI, before doctors could look inside the brain without making an entry into the skull. Thirty-nine-year-old Kate Riley is awaiting exploratory brain surgery. While she's in her hospital bed, just after her head's been shaved, Kate looks back on her life.
Her memories inform this picaresque tale in which Kate travels from her hometown in Saskatchewan to Vancouver to Seattle to San Francisco and to Monterey looking for Mr. Right and leaving a trail of heartbreak and destruction - mostly her own. Readers, meanwhile, learn who Kate is and what she's like.
Although the title might suggest that Kate does indeed have a brain tumor, it very soon becomes apparent that she doesn't. By page five, readers will see that the hospital setup is a farce. Kate's not even sick. If there's a fire in her head, it's caused by the death of a father, who doted on his youngest child and only daughter - 10-year-old Kate. His untimely death leaves Kate psychically wounded and man-hungry.
Her first victim is Jan Larsen, a young Saskatchewan farmer, whom Kate refuses to marry, mainly because he doesn't have much money and won't leave Netherfield, their hometown, nestled as it is in the prairie, which Kate finds stultifying. Leaving behind her widowed elderly mother, Kate does better in the stimulating atmosphere of Vancouver.
In Vancouver, Kate conquers the heart of Gregor Vancleve, an elderly and wealthy gentleman, as she attempts (or feigns) suicide by drowning. After several years of marriage, Kate shows her true nature, and the marriage ends as Kate moves to Seattle.
Here Kate meets her match, nightclub-owner Max Wyman, who cheats on his wife. And although Kate bears his child, the affair blows up, causing Kate to move to San Francisco. There she meets and marries Nelson Burke, a wealthy, middle-aged man, only to learn on their wedding night that there's a reason why he's waited so long to marry.
These affairs and a string of increasingly meaningless relationships, triggering ever more desperate illnesses - all ploys to keep the man of the moment - lead to four children. And as her daughter observes toward the book's end, Kate Riley wasn't meant to be a mother - "only a daughter who would become a lover." Believing children to be bad for the business of attracting new men, Kate blithely leaves her offspring behind, proving that not even motherhood can lay claim to her affections.
Kate is rootless and restless like the wanderer in William Butler Yeats' poem "The Song of Wandering Aengus" (to which Stegner's title alludes), which, printed in its entirety in the front of the book, sets the narrative's poetic tone. As the story advances through Kate's remembrances, striking images gather and recede like the clouds that form in the sky over her prairie home.
Stegner's long sentences and numerous descriptive passages slow the narrative and sometimes make the reading difficult. But the language - much of it resembling a prose poem - is gorgeously rendered in a style reminiscent of James Joyce. Here's a sample sentence:
"The train tracks marked the southern boundary of Netherfield; beyond them lay the open prairie and the sky rising and fanning overhead with a dizzying omnipresence that held both motion and suspended motion; an overwhelming show of emptiness as strong as a blow to the head that blanked out everything, coupled with a tyranny of sheer freedom, sheer possibility that tended to strengthen spines and fill lungs and run the mind along a ragged edge."
Published in the University of Nebraska's Flyover Fiction series, this book rightfully received the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Award for best manuscript.
Diane Scharper teaches English at Towson University. Her next book, "Reading Lips," will be published this year.