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Book Review: The Fire Watcher by Chip Hill

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Why couldn’t I put down this book?

Can words move me that much? Did the tale catch me off guard psychically, morally—maybe even spiritually? Yet, why? Why couldn’t I just put The Fire Watcher aside and go on with my everyday activities that always keep me very busy, engaged, and fascinated with life?

The Fire Watcher seems so very simple. It begins in an outdated nuclear power plant in Singleton, Pennsylvania where a long-term alcoholic reports for duty. He was an engineer at this very plant at one time. In its heyday, Jake was part of managing this power plant’s electrical distribution system. Now, drinking has forced Jake’s superiors to make a problematic decision. They will not fire a man who has devoted his life to nuclear energy; they will simply demote him to a facility caretaker, a janitor if you will, where he can do little harm.

So why couldn’t I put down this book?

Jake’s workplace merely exists as a retired facility. Yet because of the hazards imposed by reactors and their waste, even those facilities that are almost entirely spent, by law, must maintain a watchful skeleton crew. Because of author Chip Hill’s graphic descriptions, a reader can easily picture a sort of Russian Chernobyl where a handful of bored workers guard this decaying power plant, its dying reactor, its support buildings, and its underground water cooling systems.

When Jake arrives near comatose from liquor but still upright, a superior sends him to check out an aged alarm panel light, blinking red, indicating an overheating situation—possibly a fire condition. Knowing this is just another false alarm, after a violent argument, Jake climbs down through a manhole-like cover and staggers through tunnels below ground. He enters the water pump chamber to find nothing wrong—obviously, another inconsistent alarm from the ancient protection system. He turns to leave.

Angry, stupefied Jake yanks hard on the steel entrance door knob. Out it comes sending him flying backward off his feet. Within minutes, he finds “the steel door and frame were swollen with rust and corrosion and now it appeared that the latch was stuck as well.” Jake waits. He cusses. He waits; he curses heaven and hell. He throws himself against the stubborn door until a shocking realization grabs him. He will stay trapped until a crew boss finds him missing.

So, why couldn’t I put down this book?

If you have ever experienced a human being living through delirium tremens, this godforsaken insanity is what awakes Jake as alcohol withdrawal seizes his being. Without this stupefying crutch, Jake must face ALL the horrific demons he feels are responsible for his dismal life condition—or was he his OWN demon? Alcoholics in recovery wards are given drugs to help them live through this stage of torturous terror but Jake must face it—completely alone and much of it darkness. 

Could you put down a story like this? What if Jake’s boss dies of a heart attack leaving no indicator that Jake ever made it to work? The desperate man has been on booze benders many times so he’ll turn up sooner or later. Pathetically, how long will it take before anyone, even loved ones, notice him absent? 

I cannot find adequate words to recommend to readers this incredibly well-written story by Author Chip Hill. Are you afraid of being alone? What if you cannot escape the relatively small water pump room? Can you face loneliness, and hunger for hours or maybe even days? Where do you urinate or defecate? This is not a story for the faint-hearted.

When you read The Fire Watcher, the insanity that overcomes Jake will overcome you. Why? You have no choice—you are privy to Jake’s thoughts. And what about God? Surely God and prayer must enter Jake’s thoughts, or will the trapped man become psychotically overwhelmed by hopelessness, meaninglessness, and deadly despair?

Many years ago, Francis Thompson (1859-1907) wrote a remarkable poem titled “The Hound of Heaven.” As I read The Fire Watcher, I could not help but think of the opening lines:

“I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.”

If you seek an unforgettable read that will capture your imagination and steep your memory, a tale that is engrossing, haunting, and at the same time even soulful and redeeming, read Chip Hill’s The Fire Watcher!

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