It was difficult for me to get into this story at first.
I feel a little weird about the whole idea of celebrity dynasties, to tell you the truth, and Joe Hill earned my respect for starting out with a pseudonym, only dropping the info that Stephen King was his dad after publishing several novels. As an obsessive King reader, I’ve read a few by his wife Tabitha (Small World is the only one I recall – a nefarious lady with a shrink ray imprisons her rival in a dollhouse). I’ve started other Joe Hill books but never quite finished them, and I was tempted to do the same with The Fireman but I kept going.
The story starts out with a nurse who is an optimist that enjoys Disney films. She’s in a cringey marriage with a hipster creep whom I hated almost immediately, and after the first hundred pages or so, the novel confirmed I had made a good call.
The story bounces from one pop culture touchstone to the next, kind of like a Simpsons episode (maybe the Halloween special, since most of the references pertain to grim dystopiae). Harper is named after the author of To Kill A Mockingbird and other characters enjoy reading Watership Down. There’s a boat named after Margaret Atwood, there’s a dig at the grimness of The Road, and there is this masterpiece:
“If she couldn’t have Mary Poppins, she would settle for A Hard Day’s Night. But it turned out life was more like the kind of song the Stones wrote: you didn’t get any satisfaction, you took one hit to the body after another, if you were a woman, you were a bitch who belonged under someone’s thumb, and if you wanted mother’s little helper from your dear doctor, you better have the silver, take it or leave it, and don’t come crying for sympathy, that was just for the devil.”
Okay, Joe Hill, with that sentence which spans several of the very best Stones albums, you have officially made your way to the list of authors I’ll be buying on release day.
Most of the riffing has to do with dear old dad’s fictional universe, and if Joe Hill is going to inherit that, and maybe even curate it and hand it down to his progeny, I just may change my mind about this artist dynasty opinion, especially if I wind up living far longer than I’d like to and need fictional entertainment. Hell, if every single King descendant decided to write their own reply to The Stand I’d probably buy/read them, although I doubt if any of them will do as good a job as Joe.
The Fireman is not the main character here; that would be Harper, and the Fireman himself is her beloved, and I won’t spoil their relationship here, but I will spill about all the plethora of King-universe references that I spotted. Harper’s pregnant, just like Frannie Goldsmith of The Stand (Frances is actually her middle name), and similar to that book, there’s a plague wiping out most Americans.
This is an unusual, science fictiony plague that makes its afflictees pyromancers, kind of like that little girl in Firestarter. And they separate off into two camps – the bad old republicans and … the arguably possibly worse matriarchal mystic cult that develops in reaction to the bad old republicans. I felt that Joe Hill has articulated some of the nihilistic terror many of us Americans feel when glancing back and forth between Donny and Hillary. And finally and inevitably, the Gunslinger’s universe abuts with The Fireman via an unusual brand of soda.
On a certain level, the story reads like a son’s very private conversation with dad. “No, you totally should’ve made it go like this, and then like that.” Kind of like being a guest at the King family home on Thanksgiving and listening to them contradict each other over the sweet potatoes.
King fils isn’t quite so black and white in his politics as King pere, but he’s also more of an optimist, and quite a bit more of a nerd (always a term of respect when coming from me). His characters aren’t as clearly delineated, and I kept getting the minor ones confused with each other, and there were whole sections that were hard to get through, such as the part where he’s trying to establish one of the douchebag villains as a normal everyday husband, except the douchebagginess shines right through.
This is a fine and entertaining novel, and it's chock full of Easter eggs for all the other King obsessives that I just know are out there. Plus there's plenty of action scenes and fire and explosions and photogenic stuff like that.