The Fires

The Fires

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From acclaimed author Alan Cheuse come two novellas of compelling intensity.

In “The Fires,” Gina Morgan makes a pilgrimage to Uzbekistan to carry out her husband’s final wish only to discover that in this former Soviet republic things are not as they used to be. And in “The Exorcism,” Tom Swanson retrieves his angry daughter from her exclusive New England college after her expulsion for setting fire to a grand piano.

Publisher’s Weekly has praised Cheuse’s “impressive command of many voices,” and The New York Times Book Review called his work “richly imagined.” In The Fires, Alan Cheuse demonstrates once more the poetry and range of his literary gifts in these finely-honed portraits of hope and change.

Praise for The Fires

“Alan Cheuse is one of the most engaged and vital writers on the scene today.”

—Robert Stone (author of Dog Soldiers and A Flag for Sunrise)

“This work is—as Chekov said—informed by the deeper harmonies. When Alan Cheuse writes, �she is retreating from desire but not from love,� it is as if the woman suffering from this relentless condition has just entered the room. “The Fires” offers the twin bequeathing of profound sadness and enchantment. Cheuse is a writer of immense gifts.”

—Howard Norman (author of Devotion and The Bird Artist)

“Cheuse’s skill as a writer makes it hard not to be drawn in…and to exit feeling transformed.”

Library Journal

“Cheuse has for years been one of the smartest, most trustworthy reviewers in America. Now he shows us where he gets his authority—a fiction writer of startling talent.”

—John Gardner (author of The Sunlight Dialogues andGrendel

“With intelligence and wit, Alan Cheuse takes us through the searing, tragic, heart-breaking and hilarious business of being alive. The two novellas that make up The Fires—one of sorrow and one of radiance—are filled with characters trying to maneuver that space between creation and destruction. Some come to ashes and some find forgiveness—even for themselves. Through it all, Cheuse never betrays the dignity or humanity of his characters. His brilliant creations are in good hands right to the end, as are we.

—Ana Menendez (author of Loving Che and In Cuba I was a German Shepherd

“[Cheuse]reminds us how close art and chaos really are.”

—The New York Times Book Review

In these two novellas, Cheuse dissects the aftermath of two very different deaths: one, of an American businessman traveling in Russia; the other, a mother, jazz pianist and drug addict. In the first novella, “The Fires,” a museum worker named Gina learns that her husband, Paul, died in a car accident while en route to Uzbekistan. Gina travels to Russia to ensure her husband gets cremated, per his wishes, and the foreign, surreal and familiar collide when Gina takes Paul’s body to a Hindu ceremony to be cremated.

“The Exorcism” applies much more overt dark humor to similar feelings in a substantially different character. An unnamed baby boomer discusses his sadness following the sudden death of his first wife, renowned jazz pianist Billie Benjamin, who fatally overdosed on heroin. Billie’s death hits her daughter, Ceely, hard (she lashes out postcremation by torching a piano at her college), and the narrator’s fond recollections of courting Billie are not received warmly by his new wife. Misery is in greater supply than comfort throughout, and Cheuse approaches his subjects from interesting angles, making these novellas of grief strangely compelling.

—Publishers Weekly

The realm of the transcient is where we live. Its also the realm of innumerable desires, a place filled with all sorts of difficult ontological situations. We manage the best we can, which is the subject of the two dazzling novellas that make up The Fires. The action is triggered by departures from this world, and both stories entertain the possibility of redemption through fire (both actual and metaphorical). This is an old idea, older than money and pharmacology. And Cheuse writes so beautifully about jazz in the second novella that you will want to listen very carefully to the music he mentions. The characters, the dilemmas they face and resolve (or don’t resolve) will stay with you long after you finish The Fires.

—Karl Pohrt (Shaman Drum Bookshop)

“These are two perfect little afternoon reading experiences to take you through a weekend.”

—Rick Kleffel, The Agony Column/KUSP radio

[Cheuse’s] honest confrontation with love in the long term provides the real heat at the core of The Fires.

—Dinah LenneyThe Los Angeles Times

Alan Cheuse is known as a book reviewer for National Public Radio,The Dallas Morning News and other outlets, yet his own books tend to fly under the fame radar for American fiction writers.

His latest work, The Fires, may give his reputation a deservedly bigger blip. The two novellas deal, in widely different ways, with a loved one’s death and cremation and with the surviving spouse’s struggle to reincarnate happiness.

The title novella, “The Fires,” pulls the reader deep inside the love and troubled emotions of a woman who must travel from the United States to rural Uzbekistan to retrieve the body of her husband, recently killed in a car crash. He had made her promise to have him cremated if he died, but now she is in a Muslim country and culture that forbids cremation.

With help from a young, inexperienced U.S. Embassy official, a way is found to get around the cremation taboo, and the woman experiences an array of feelings, memories and heightened senses as Hindu fires finally consume the body and release her to begin finding her new life.

In the second novella, “The Exorcism,” a man who has had several wives is called to retrieve his daughter, who has been expelled from an exclusive New England college. The daughter has set fire to a baby grand piano and attempted suicide by fire, following the death and cremation of her mother. The father must find a way to reconcile with his daughter while also sorting out his emotions and desires amid his present marriage and memories of marriages past.

Along the way, he does his best to try to forgive everyone who has wronged him or caused him discomfort. But he remains troubled about his life and finally reaches a point where he is “so desperate I would try anything.” That “anything” turns out to be a Brazilian exorcist with a basement office on Connecticut Avenue and the ability to help him see inside his own soul.

Mr. Cheuse is a superb storyteller whose quiet, clear writing style smoothly imparts deep meanings. With The Fires, he takes readers on two cleansing journeys through dark flames of pain and despair, emerging each time into a bright, calm light that promises hope, change and new chances at love and life.

—Si Dunn The Dallas Morning News

Book critic Cheuse, whose resonant commentaries are heard on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, returns to fiction after the essay collection Listening to the Page (2001). Cheuse ignites fire in the mind and in the heart in a pair of tightly written novellas (the dialogue volleys as smoothly as that of a play) that form a yin-yang of grief and healing. In the title story, a woman suffering the debilitating hot flashes of menopause journeys to Uzbekistan to collect the body of her husband, who died in a fiery accident, and finds herself participating in a Hindu cremation. In “The Exorcism,” a man struggles with his own conflagration of sorrow after his ex-wife, a brilliant jazz musician, dies of a heroin overdose. He then offers sanctuary to their college-student daughter, whose mourning turns dangerously incendiary. Startlingly beautiful in their searing radiance and molten heat, Cheuse’s poetic tales of pain and forgiveness, loss and remembrance stoke our age-old fascination with fire as a force of destruction and renewal.

—Donna Seaman Booklist

Cheuse writes straightforward, polished prose, successfully straddling the lines between the horrible and the humorous, and between the catastrophic and the commonplace.

—Jessica TreadwayThe Chicago Tribune