California Literary Review

The Fire Baby by Jim Kelly

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June 10th, 2007 at 4:38 pm

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The Fire Baby
by Jim Kelly
St. Martin’s Press, 323 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★☆

Man’s Inherent Metaphysical Reality

“Not every man is so great a coward as he thinks he is…”
The Master of Ballantrue
By Robert Louis Stevenson

Alexander Solzhenitsyn once wrote, “Literature transmits incontrovertible condensed experience…from generation to generation. In this way literature becomes the living memory of a nation.” Mother Russia has, of course, birthed an impressive array of brilliant writers. From Pushkin to Tolstoi to Dostoyevski, Russian writers have conveyed what Solzhenitsyn referred to as “the living memory of a nation” predicated on a fundamental agrarianism, the imposed suffering of oppressive regimes, and most importantly, on their apodictical faith; what one writer has referred to as “the cult of the soul.” They are a people who possess an intrinsic sense of being, of self, within the context of creation and Creator.

It seems to me that English writers, far more than their American cousins, share many of these same attributes including the collective memory of empires lost and a civilization so devalued by the multicultural myth as to appear morally supine. However, many contemporary English writers retain the essential nature of their culture. While they have, in many instances, been seduced by nihilism, there still remains the flickering light of the old faith. And, it is this knowledge of man’s inherent metaphysical reality that provides the means for them to manufacture stories that engage the imagination. It is, in one sense, “presenting versions of soul-making.”

One such English writer, Jim Kelly, has managed to produce a novel of depth and symmetry that celebrates the enormous complexities of man, while providing a multi-layered story that keeps the reader captive until the final page. His second novel, The Fire Baby, presents itself as a crime novel that incorporates various perfidies from the smuggling of illegal immigrants to a deliciously malicious revenge murder.

The story takes place in the Cambridgeshire Fens district, a region known for peat production and brush fires in the summer, and portrays in stark detail the hardscrabble life of its people. The protagonist is one Philip Dryden, a journalist who once roamed the august offices of Fleet Street’s most influential journals, but, alas, is now reduced in employment to chief reporter for The Crow, a decidedly provincial paper. But, the job suits his limited needs, for Philip Dryden is a coward, a burden that weighs heavily on his soul.

Philip Dryden’s cowardice is defined by one moment in his life. While driving with his wife, Laura, on a lonely fens road he swerves to avoid another car and plunges into a dyke on the Harrimere Drain. Miraculously, he is saved but his wife, lodged in the back seat, goes down with the car and it takes three hours to rescue her. Unfortunately, Laura is in a coma and is diagnosed with Locked in Syndrome. She is to be lodged in The Tower Hospital, where Dryden will visit her daily.

Dryden’s sidekick is an overweight, insolent cabby named, Humphrey H. Holt, the recent victim of a cuckolding postman with an overactive libido who imparts upon “Humph” a certain minatory attitude toward Her Majesty’s letter carriers. While Humph plays “Pancho” to Dryden’s “Cisco” he is, because of his formidable girth, loath to exit his two-door taxi, the taxi being “a triumph of indifference over reality.”

But, the focus of this story is one, Maggie Beck of Black Bank Farm, “a big woman with the farmyard bones as familiar and comforting as the Aga, with that corkscrew burn like a tattoo on her face,” who first met Dryden when she came to stay with his mother following his father’s demise. Maggie has her own tragedy to deal with-the 1976 crash of an American Air Force plane that claimed the lives of her parents and her son. Ironically, twenty-eight years later Maggie is in the bed beside Dryden’s wife, Laura, dying from cancer, and she has a story to tell. Will her old ward, Philip Dryden, help her?

Now the plot develops at hyper-speed: the smuggling of illegal immigrants, pornographers seeking victims, U.S. Air Force personnel linked by an Iraqi prison, a vengeful father, and the primordial fens, all commingled in a broiling drama like the turbulent eddies of a river in flood.

It is Kelly’s formidable protagonist, Philip Dryden that holds center stage in this drama. He is a man afflicted with his past, and forced to confront the present. But, the author has given us a hint of who Philip Dryden is, “His features were architectural. Precisely, early Norman. The head of a knight, perhaps, from a cathedral nave, or illuminated on a medieval parchment. Illuminated but passive; a dramatic irony which nicely summed him up.”

Jim Kelly’s, The Fire Baby, is an exquisite morality play that details those egregious flaws in human nature that have titillated mankind throughout history. The author has, in a most entertaining style, explained to his readers that lust, pride, revenge, and murder come at price. A price that demands payment!

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