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Book Review: Fire Gazer: Arson at the Wolfe House by Kevin Burton McGuire

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Asheville, North Carolina, is an amazing city. It frequently appears on ten-best lists, such as the “Ten Best Places to Retire” or “Ten Best Small Cities to Live In.” It is also the sixth most-misspelled place name in America. This is the kind of trivia one learns when researching one’s future home. A favorite tourist area in Asheville is downtown, where galleries, funky shops, and cool restaurants inhabit historic buildings, paying homage to the architecture by not altering it. Asheville has a rich, proud history and many faces. Besides the downtown area, there are both urban and suburban areas, shopping meccas, business districts, manufacturing, and art — lots of art. Visitors to Asheville are introduced to its art when they arrive at the airport where the works of local artists are showcased. Asheville also lays claim to famous writers O. Henry and Thomas Wolfe.

A city as eclectic as Asheville is bound to make the perfect setting for the perfect book. It was with great anticipation that I awaited Fire Gazer: Arson at the Wolfe House by Kevin Burton McGuire. McGuire is an Ohio transplant now living in Asheville. His book is a fictional investigation of the ghost of Zelda Fitzgerald as reported by one DC, the off-balance leader of a mini-cult. It takes the form of notes newspaper reporter Ben Jennings took over the course of two days he spent with DC and some of his followers.

Have you ever known a paranoid schizophrenic? When unmedicated, the individual’s rants may take the form of long rambling “sermons” on the evils they have discovered in some innocuous form and how “they” (the government, aliens, big business) are trying to enslave or brainwash us all or eliminate free-thinking individuals (like the paranoid schizophrenic and his friends). When not darkly colored with paranoia, these rants are wild and belligerent at best. They are delivered by someone who knows things that no one else knows, and therefore speaks down to everyone.

This is how DC speaks. Fire Gazer: Arson at the Wolfe House is dialogue driven, and the dialogue is not believable. When Ben Jennings is speaking to a couple of spacey girls in a graveyard, his tone is more that of a starchy professor giving a literature lecture. Most of what Ben says seems unnatural. Do people really speak that way? Not in Western North Carolina, they don’t. Even if DC were the most normal human being on the planet, Ben’s stilted conversation would have alienated him. And, clearly, DC is not normal. He does not seem very charismatic, either, although he does gather crowds of listeners in public places.

The book is unsatisfying in other ways, as well. It has a very disconnected quality as it wanders from parks to cemeteries, dreams to seances, newsrooms to busy city streets. Ben is in trouble at work, but there is no foundation for the trouble other than a contemporaneous conversation he has with a supervisor and his belief that the boss doesn’t like him. Ben suspects DC of arson, but he gets nowhere with authorities who tell him that without evidence, there is nothing they can do. Isn’t it their job to get the evidence? Wouldn’t an investigator or detective want to at least sit down with him and hear what he has to offer about a credible suspect? As disappointing as the book is, one can visualize it as the basis of a brilliant David Lynch movie. It’s a vision of a world where nothing relates to anything else.

The author, through Ben Jennings, makes one observation that is absolutely true, “Everything is tougher in the mountains.” While the Great Smoky Mountains offer the most beautiful place to live and fine weather, they offer a life that is a little more difficult than city living. If you travel by car In the mountains, there is no such thing as a shortcut. It can take twenty minutes to travel between two places that are a mile apart “as the crow flies.” Snow and rock slides make roads impassible. If you don’t live in the city, you can’t “walk to the corner for a loaf of bread.” Steven Wright once said, “Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time.” In the mountains, there will never be enough time.

One true observation, alas, does not make a book good. It is a sad thing that, no matter how prestigious a publisher may be, there seems to be a plague of poorly edited or proofread books. At first I was pleased to see Fire Gazer: Arson at the Wolfe House was an exception but it seems the proofreader quit after the first half. By the way, O. Henry was a writer; O’Henry is a candy bar.

Bottom Line: Would I buy it? No.

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