The Fireman’s Wife
by Jack Riggs
Ballantine Books, 352 pp., $14.00
Jack Riggs’ sophomore novel, The Fireman’s Wife, tosses its readers among several climates: the chilly coastal waters of South Carolina, the steamy blacktop highways of the low country, the cool mountain air of the Western Carolina Mountain, and the choking fires that burn along the coasts of South Carolina. In the same way, the novel also swings the readers between Peck, the fireman, and Cassie, the fireman’s wife. The relationship between these two isn’t any less bipolar than the relationship between the different climates, which always makes for an interesting story.
The story begins with Cassie headed towards a softball game, her daughter in the backseat and Clay Taylor, another fireman and more specifically, another fireman with whom Cassie has become involved, riding passenger. Cassie’s daughter, a fifteen-year-old who yes, was the catalyst for her parent’s fifteen-year-old marriage, senses something is up, and shoots barbs at her mother. These continue to fly for the remainder of the novel, softening only towards the end. It is this relationship that is perhaps the most real; we can sy sense in Cassie a resentment towards the daughter not only for happening along and interrupting her life, but also for being such a hitch in her plans to leave her husband. This is not only a very true relationship, but Riggs also manages to do this and still keep Cassie sympathetic. He does not judge any of his characters, which, in a tale about moral failings, would be relatively easy to do.
Part of the way that Riggs does this is by giving both Cassie and Peck a voice. The novel is told in alternating spurts of Cassie and Peck’s first person narrations. After Cassie’s section that opens the book, we get Peck’s. When we first meet him, he and his crew have attempted to save a young child who has drowned at the beach. They fail, which, as happens many times in this novel, this calls up thoughts about his own daughter.
For Peck’s struggle is a one of life and death, which contrasts well with the other struggle: between losing Cassie and keeping Cassie. Between not having a family and having one. Between being in company or being alone. Peck’s career gives Riggs ample ability to ramp up the stakes on the relationship between Peck and Cassie, and thus adds intensity to this struggle.
Another thing that the firefighter idea allows Riggs to add to this piece is, of course, metaphor and imagery. As I said before, this is a novel that flips between hot and cold in climates as well as relationships. While some of this is good, I did feel that it occasionally went over the top. Peck talks a lot about the relationship in terms of “Cassie never liking the low country,” because of the heat. While Peck might certainly have had such a line of thinking, there might have been moments where Riggs could have allowed us to see past the characters simply in terms of fire and heat. In all the fire and heat imagery, there was also that crucial idea of the middle ground that could have helped. In a sense, we get so much of the heat and flatness, and so much of the chill and dramatic climb of the mountains that we miss any kind of plateau that might have forced the characters to face themselves and each other.
All of this imagery, however, would not be present in the novel without Riggs’ use of language and careful attention to details. While some of the time these images are a bit too rich and oversaturated, that is not without saying that the details and images were there, and that they were rich, and that they did make this an enjoyable novel to read, as well as an interesting world to inhabit.