Sunday, December 10, 2023

"Above the Fire"

Michael O’Donnell is the author of the novel Above the Fire. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and other publications. O’Donnell has been a member of the National Book Critics Circle since 2005. An attorney by profession, he lives in the Chicago area, where he practices law. He earned his bachelor’s degree with distinction from Indiana University and his law degree magna cum laude from Boston College.

O’Donnell applied the Page 69 Test to Above the Fire and reported the following:
From page 69:
Doug and Jane exchanged a glance as Paul took another long drink from his water bottle.

"And then something strange happened." Paul shook his head. "I returned by way of Route 25 instead of the interstate. Just to see what else I could find. I stopped in Moultonborough--the town with that little fixed-wing airstrip?" He sounded dazed and was practically talking to himself. "I must have gone up and down every road and checked every business on Main Street. Knocked on doors, called out until I was hoarse. There was nobody there. Not one soul."
The Page 69 Test works well for Above the Fire because it lands on a chapter-end and a key pivot point in the story. Doug and his son Tim are hiking in the White Mountains when reports of communication blackouts and fires begin to reach the backcountry huts. In this scene, Paul, one of the rangers of the national forest, has just returned from scouting down below to report what he has seen. His news shows that the uncertain events may be more troubling than simple electrical outages or even fears of war. Something so bizarre and frightening is occurring that it demands a decision for Doug: should he and his son descend the mountain, or stay up high where it is safe?

From a story perspective, page 69 is critical. But for those who approach the book with character foremost in mind, it may be less important. The event that keeps Doug and Tim high above the unstable world will matter less to those readers than what happens to them after they make their decision. How do they interact with each other and with outsiders? What new risks will they confront together? How and when will they decide to rejoin society? This aspect of the book echoes Cormac McCarthy's The Road. In that novel we never learn what has scorched the world; it does not matter. What matters is the relationship of the man and the boy. Yet where The Road takes readers through a relentlessly bleak and savage landscape, Above the Fire immerses them in beauty. Mountains, trees, and fellowship between new friends: these are the guideposts of the story that follows the scene on page 69.
Visit Michael O'Donnell's website.

Q&A with Michael O'Donnell.

--Marshal Zeringue