In recent headline news: 14,000 inhabitants of British Colombia were evacuated as wild fires approached; 8,000 Southern Californians dashed for safety; 62 victims died in a forest fire in Northern Portugal; London’s Grenfell Tower fire took the lives of “around 80 people.” The threat of infernal combustion is the leitmotif that ties Dave Housley’s latest collection of short stories Massive Cleansing Fire together. Although it is unknown whether the fires that bridge the stories are started by folly or malice or divine lightning rod, what remains clear is the horror, destruction and often mundane reactions to our inevitable demise. As the flames approach, an insurance salesman commits double suicide, a clown and a monkey die together, a writer hiding in the Museum of Modern Art attempts to save some Rothkos, a bible thumper prays away, and a lab worker at a New Mexican cryonics lab follows final instructions. Suspenseful, dense, and unpredictable, Housley keeps the pages turning.
Between the fire vignettes, a spliced sequence of brave (disguised) novellas explore quotidian themes with powerful, minimal prose. This is work-place-shooting-khaki-pants-dress-shirt-tucked-into-belt-America, full of pop-culture, brand-names, suburban angst—a land somewhere between Raymond Carver and George Saunders with a splash of Rod Serling. Imagine Cormack McCarthy’s The Road meets Robert Altman’s Short Cuts with a cast of circus clowns, a war photographer, cowboy singers on cruise ships, and an alcoholic pirate that works as a legal office temp. Massive Cleansing Fire is a master lesson in jump-cuts and juxtaposition. Housley’s prose and imagination are admirable.
The author and collection are not afraid to pull punches and approach controversial themes. In both form and content, Housley attacks divisive political and social norms. For example, two stories, “Those People” and “You People” are written in the first-person point-of-view from an African-American protagonist, who is confronting racists situations. Rarely do white-American writers have the ability to leap the racial wall. Even rarer is the publisher that will risk the backlash. Whether siding with team “radical empathy” or team “cultural appropriation,” the reader will not be able to tell the author’s race without a Google search. Unlike much fiction that attempts to inhabit the skin of another, race is this situation and not the story. When discussing this heated topic, context is decisive. Rather than a sweeping judgmental, “no, you can’t do that,” or “yes, writers can write whatever they want,” a sober, “it depends,” is the wise and impartial answer.
By agreeing with Viet Thanh Nguyen’s articulate and profound article in the Los Angeles Times, contextualizing the debate in September 2016:
It is possible to write about others not like oneself, if one understands that this is not simply an act of culture and free speech, but one that is enmeshed in a complicated, painful history of ownership and division.
Housley and Outpost19 have opened the debate by tearing down walls—not erecting them. These stories do not fumble clumsily towards sketch characters. These stories are not safe spaces for the sensitive seeking affirmation. These stories are about three-dimensional individuals in dire straits who make tough and flawed decisions. Massive Cleansing Fire is an intelligent and entertaining collection, which makes subtle and heart-wrenching jabs at the tragic incendiaries that sweep America today.